A deadly outbreak of cholera in Iraq is being blamed on a scandal
involving corrupt officials who failed to sterilise the local drinking
water because they were bribed to buy chlorine from Iran that was long
past its expiration date.
centre of the epidemic is in Babil province, south of Baghdad, in the
marshy lands east of the Euphrates river, not far from the ruins of
ancient Babylon. In Baghdad, where half the six million population has
no access to clean drinking water, people are now drinking only bottled
or boiled water.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has
appointed a commission of inquiry to find out why ineffective chlorine
was being used. He is also refusing to release three officials under
arrest despite demands from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)
to which they are linked. In the town of al-Madhatiya, in southern
Babil, a councillor involved in buying the chlorine was reportedly
released after militiamen connected to ISCI intimidated police into
The scandal over the contract is becoming a test
case of the Maliki government's willingness to tackle the pervasive
corruption in Iraq where officials see their jobs primarily as a way of
enriching themselves through bribes. It is also a test of his ability
to exercise central control over ISCI and parties which have been
hitherto dominant outside Baghdad.
Cholera is endemic in Iraq but
last year there was an epidemic in northern Iraq which was far more
serious than anything seen for years. Some 4,700 people, mostly in
Sulaimaniyah province, were struck.
This year, the government
hoped to stop another outbreak of the disease by repairing shattered
water and sanitation stations and putting chlorine in the water supply.
An Iraqi government official, who did not want his name published, said
the Health Ministry bought $11m (£6.4m) worth of chlorine from Iran for
use in the provinces of Babil, Diwaniyah and Kerbala, all on the
Euphrates river south of Baghdad.
In the latter two provinces,
officials noticed that the chlorine was old and the time during which
it could be employed effectively had expired, and refused to use it.
But in Babil the chlorine was put in the fresh water supply stations at
al-Madhatiyah, al-Hashimiyah and al-Qasim, south-east of the provincial
capital, al-Hillah. Soon 222 people were confirmed as having cholera in
Babil, in a total of 420 cases of whom seven have died.
scandal is a reflection of the the way Iraqi politics works. The ruling
parties monopolise jobs and contracts. It is impossible to find work at
any level in most ministries without a letter of commendation from one
of the parties in the government. The enormous Iraqi government
apparatus, employing some two million people, is a patronage machine.
There are now more state officials than under Saddam, but it is unable
to supply electricity, food rations and clean water, despite Iraq's
$80bn in accumulated oil revenues.
The power base of ISCI, the
most powerful Shia religious party, is the Shia provinces of southern
Iraq between Baghdad and Basra. Political parties are expected to
protect their members from arrest. This explains what happened next.
The officials arrested in Babil belonged to the Badr Organisation, the
militia wing of ISCI. Leaders of the party demanded their release but
Mr Maliki refused. Badr militants then turned up at a police station in
al-Madhatiya and forced the police to release a councillor apparently
involved in purchasing the chlorine.
But the grand Shia coalition
which won more than half the seats in the Iraqi parliament in the last
election in December 2005 has broken up. Mr Maliki is trying to build
up his own Dawa party, using the resources of the state.
deepening differences with ISCI which won most of the southern Iraqi
provinces. They accuse him of trying to create a power base in what was
previously their territory by paying the tribes who belong to
government-sponsored "support councils" in southern Iraq. His aim is to
get his own candidates elected in the provincial and parliamentary
elections next year. "These will be crucial in deciding who will hold
power in Iraq in future," said one senior Iraqi official.
of oil revenues gives Mr Maliki a crucial card. Iraq has 50 to 60 per
cent unemployment and most jobs are with the state. Salaries of state
employees have risen sharply. But the government remains largely
dysfunctional aside from its growing military strength. Iraqi
journalists are encouraged and paid to write "good news" stories. In
Baghdad, people notice there is little mention of the cholera in the
media. This provokes fear that the epidemic may be worse than the
After the invasion: Services in Iraq
* Before the war, Baghdad had electricity between 16 and 24 hours a day. This has dropped to just under 12.
* There was no national mobile phone network, now there are at least 12 million subscribers.
* In April 2007 there were 261,000 internet subscribers. Before the war this number was estimated as 4,500.
* Of the 34,000 doctors registered in pre-war Iraq, 20,000 fled, 2,000 have been killed and 250 kidnapped.
* Registered cars more than doubled, to 3.1 million by October 2005.
Source: The Brookings Institution