General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Congress this past week that there has been substantial progress, but not enough to begin withdrawing American troops. There are questions about the readiness of the new Iraqi army and the competence of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government, which is fraught with ethnic and religious divisions.
Electricity is still in short supply, medicines are available mainly through the black market, and there are long lines for fuel in a country that has the third largest oil reserves in the world. One of the biggest problems is corruption, which is robust even by Middle Eastern standards. According to U.S. and Iraqi officials, bribery and outright theft are flourishing in virtually every Iraqi ministry, and some of those ill-gotten gains are being used to kill American troops.
This story begins 18 months ago, in the fall of 2006, when correspondent Steve Kroft first reported that more than a billion dollars from the previous Iraqi Defense Ministry had been wasted, stolen or misappropriated. The money was supposed to supply the new Iraqi army with desperately-needed equipment to fight the growing insurgency. But according to audits conducted by the Iraqi government, and to Judge Radhi al Radhi, Iraq's top anti-corruption official, millions were misspent on old and antiquated equipment and the rest simply disappeared.
Judge Radhi told Kroft that he estimated that "more than half" of the $1.3 billion had been stolen. "As we hear from some friends abroad, that they never heard of such corruption and embezzlement to such a degree," he said.
Radhi, who was imprisoned and tortured under Saddam Hussein, obtained arrest warrants for the former minister of defense and his top aides, who all fled the country. As Iraq's commissioner of public integrity, Radhi had one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. He launched investigations against 20 current and former ministers, alienating the political establishment to the point that parliament tried to fire him. He had 30 body guards and received constant death threats.
To the remark that lots of people would like to see him dead, Radhi told Kroft, "I don't care. That's their problem."
That was in 2006.
Today he's living with his extended family living in a small apartment with donated furniture in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The most public figure in Iraq's battle against corruption had finally been driven out of his job and his country and is now a refugee seeking asylum in the United States.
He showed Kroft pictures of some of the 31 members of his staff who were murdered. One was killed with his pregnant wife; the father of his security chief was found hanging on a meat hook.
"When we first interviewed you, I said, 'Look. There are all sorts of people that want you dead.' And you answered, 'I don't care,'" Kroft remarked.
"But this threat is now against my family too," Radhi said, with the help of a translator.
Asked what made him believe that his family was in danger, Radhi said, "At the end of July, a missile was fired at my home. It fell about five meters away. It hit another house next to mine, and of course my family was terrified."
"And it got to the point where his adversaries were left with few other options. But to possibly remove him, period," explained James Mattil, who was the chief of staff of the State Department's Office of Accountability and Transparency in Iraq.
It was his job to assist Judge Radhi to clean up corruption in Iraq. And Mattil believes Radhi did a good job given the resources at Radhi's disposal and the scope of the problem, which was outlined in a draft report prepared by the State Department.