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Study details rampant government corruption worldwide

The bloody civil war in Syria is having yet another impact: The nation is now considered one of the most corrupt in the world, according to newly released data from the anti-corruption group Transparency International.

The organization's annual "Corruption Perceptions Index," first published in 1995, is one of the most closely watched barometers of the issue. The group surveyed experts on public sector corruption in 177 countries, grading each nation on a scale of zero to 100, with zero being "highly corrupt" and 100 being "very clean."

Syria has never been considered particularly virtuous, but growing attention to the business dealings of President Bashar al-Assad and his associates helped its score plunge to 17 from 26 in 2012. The country now ranks near the bottom—tied with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for 168th place. It ranked 144th last year.

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But no nation has a monopoly on corruption, according to the study, which found that 70 percent of the countries scored 50 or below.

"The 'Corruption Perceptions Index 2013' demonstrates that all countries still face the threat of corruption at all levels of government, from the issuing of local permits to the enforcement of laws and regulations," Huguette Labelle, chair of Transparency International, said in a statement.

Corruption Perceptions Index 2013
Source: Transparency International

America's ranking

The U.S. turned in a mediocre performance, according to the study. The world's largest economy scored 73 in this year's index—identical to last year—which puts it in a tie with Uruguay for 19th place. Canada, Germany, Great Britain and Japan are among countries considered cleaner than the United States.

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Transparency International and others have criticized the U.S. for relatively lax controls on money laundering. Other issues considered include campaign finance and government contracting. The U.S. has never finished higher than 14th (in 2000) and has come in as low as 24th (2011), though the organization says year-to-year comparisons can be misleading because of changes in methodology.

This year's least-corrupt countries are Denmark and New Zealand, which both scored 91. The most corrupt are Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia, each scoring a mere 8 out of 100 points.

Russia matched last year's score of 28 points, finishing in a nine-way tie for 127th place. China improved by one point, for a score of 40, tying with Greece for 80th place.

That score is a marked improvement from a year ago, when Greece was in the depths of a financial crisis. The resulting reforms may have helped boost last year's score of 36 points, but it is still perceived to be the most corrupt country in the euro zone, the study said.

(Read more: Half of all employees think corruption is OK: Report)

Global corruption

An alarming number of countries worldwide are infected with toxic levels of corruption, with more than two-thirds of the 177 nations included having unacceptably high levels of "abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery," according to a press release issued by Transparency International.

However, even top-performing nations struggle with undue influence exerted over government via backroom deals, campaign financing and awarding of government contracts.

Double-dealing, bribery and other forms of misconduct affect all categories and levels of government, ranging from a local municipal office issuing permits to a national government agency charged with enforcing laws and regulations. Controlling corruption in policing, justice systems and the activities of political parties is especially important, according to a press release that accompanied the results.

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The index is based on data collected over the past two years by 13 different entities, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, the World Bank, and World Economic Forum. It rates each country examined on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 ("very clean").

Any rating below 50 is considered more corrupt than clean.

Five European Union member states earned scores below 50, including Italy, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Notwithstanding the occasional crack-smoking mayor, Canada also outranks the U.S. with a score of 81.

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Countries that improved their standings on the index this year include Myanmar, Brunei, Lesotho, Senegal, Nepal, Estonia and Latvia.

Others that have lost ground this year include high-ranking Australia, Slovenia and Iceland, as well as Spain, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mali, Eritrea, Mauritius, Yemen, Guatemala, Madagascar and Congo Republic.

The index, of course, is not without its limitations. It measures only about half of the 322 countries around the globe and focuses only on corruption in the public sector (government agencies, justice system, etc.).

Transparency International warns that countries ranking at the bottom of the index are not necessarily the most corrupt societies overall.

(Read more: What's the solution to chronic Greek corruption?)

"Corruption remains notoriously difficult to investigate and prosecute" and will likely stymie efforts to tackle international scourges such as extreme poverty, climate change and economic crisis, Transparency International said in a press release.

The group calls on international bodies such as the G20 to "crack down on money laundering, make corporations more transparent and pursue the return of stolen assets."