BAGHDAD » The shipment of computer laptops that arrived in Iraq’s main seaport in February was a small but important part of the American military’s mission here to win hearts and minds. What happened afterward is a tale of good intentions mugged by Iraq’s reality.
The computers — 8,080 in all, worth $1.8 million — were bought for schoolchildren in Babil, modern-day Babylon, a gift of the American taxpayers. Only they became mired for months in customs at the port, Umm Qasr, stalled by bureaucracy or venality, or some combination of the two. And then they were gone.
Corruption is so rampant here — and American reconstruction efforts so replete with their own mismanagement — that the fate of the computers could have ended as an anecdote in a familiar, if disturbing trend. Iraq, after all, ranks above only Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia on Transparency International’s annual corruption index. But the American military commander in southern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, was clearly furious. Even if the culprits are not exactly known, the victims are: Iraqi children and American taxpayers. He issued a rare and stinging public rebuke of a government that the United States hopes to treat as an equal, strategic partner — flawed, perhaps, but getting better.
In a statement, he demanded an investigation into the actions of "a senior Umm Qasr official," who, even now, has not been identified.
The disclosure embarrassed the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, in the middle of a protracted political fight to win a second term, could hardly have welcomed the headlines.
"They are stealing the computers of students," the newspaper Al Nasiriya declared, voicing a populist outrage at Iraq’s government that is becoming fairly common.
It also put the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a bind. Diplomats here, like their counterparts in Afghanistan, have found themselves forced to address — delicately — the misdeeds a nominally democratic government that U.S. military force brought to power.
The embassy promptly took charge of making statements about the affair, and then stopped making any, preferring to handle the matter diplomatically — that is, with as little public fuss as possible. Brooks’ spokeswoman referred questions back to the embassy. The original statement disappeared from the website of the U.S. military in Iraq — "in error," according to a spokesman; after inquiries, it was reposted Saturday.
The laptops arrived in two shipments, on Feb. 20 and Feb. 23. The original shipping documents mistakenly listed the computers’ destination as Umm Qasr, not Babil, which caused confusion. By April, though, the U.S. military had tracked them down and repeatedly tried to clear them through customs and truck them to Babil.
Then, in August, Iraqis auctioned off 4,200 of the computers — for $45,700. The whereabouts of the rest are unknown.
Prodded by the Americans and Iraqi officials in Babil, al-Maliki ordered an investigation by the Commission on Integrity, a besieged independent watchdog whose investigations have led to clashes with al-Maliki and other senior officials.
Investigations involving official malfeasance here have a mixed record at best, rarely resulting in criminal charges, let alone convictions, especially when they involve senior officials.
Al-Maliki’s, though, produced results — of a sort.
In early September, the auctioned computers were recovered, according to Iraqi officials, who nevertheless declined to discuss how or where. They had been sold to a businessman in Basra, Hussein Nuri al-Hassan. He could not be found last week at the address he gave when buying the computers.
None of the officials, most of whom would speak only on the condition of anonymity, could explain what happened to the rest of the computers.
And officials in Baghdad, Basra and Umm Qasr, when asked about the auction, continued to deny wrongdoing, saying the computers were sold according to established rules governing imports left unclaimed after 90 days.
Last week there was another breakthrough — of a sort.
Iraqi officials in Basra and Baghdad said that arrest warrants had been issued for 10 customs employees at Umm Qasr, all low-level officials. Six were said to have been detained. The officials refused to identify them, though. Nor were the charges made public, leaving the details of the case as shrouded in mystery as many facts are in Iraq.
"We are still investigating," an official from the Commission on Integrity said. "We cannot give anymore information now, but soon you will receive a lot of information about this issue."
The director of customs at Umm Qasr, Salah Edan Jassim, was transferred out of his job two weeks ago, but officials denied that it was related to the computers. Neither he nor his deputy, Abid al-Hussein Aleibi, appears to be in legal jeopardy.
Aleibi, in an interview in Umm Qasr on Thursday, acknowledged that the seaport, a crucial lifeline for oil headed out to the Persian Gulf and imports coming in, was overwhelmed, hobbled by a lack of accounting systems, sporadic electricity and aging equipment.
He also said that one of the shipping containers had been opened at some point while in customs, which could explain the fate of the other still missing computers, or not.
"We here at the port of Umm Qasr have problems with port management," he said.
A spokesman for the embassy, David J. Ranz, expressed satisfaction with the investigation thus far.
"We are very pleased that they are taking action to apprehend those who stole laptops from Iraqi children," he said in an e-mail. "There’s more to be done, but these 10 arrests are a good start and reflect the growing strength and competence of anticorruption authorities in Iraq, particularly the Commission on Integrity."
Still, seven months after the computers arrived, no child has used one. The recovered computers are now in the possession of the Americans, awaiting the resolution of the mystery over the missing ones.
It is possible, however, to see a bright side of the affair. Today’s Iraq may be corrupt, saddled with a bureaucracy from Saddam Hussein’s era that has changed little and hobbled by a political impasse that has blocked the formation of a new government nearly seven months after parliamentary elections. But Iraqis — the media, politicians, average citizens — are freer than ever to denounce the wrongdoing of bureaucrats and thieves, even if to little effect.
Qassim al-Moussawi, the chairman of the education committee in Babil’s provincial council, said government corruption was "bleeding the body of Iraq."
"It is necessary that the investigation continue," he added, "and it should be made public so everyone will know the truth."