Iraq probes alleged corruption at central bank

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi lawmakers have launched an investigation into allegations of financial wrongdoing involving the longtime governor of the country's central bank and other senior bank officials, officials familiar with the probe said Tuesday.

The governor, Sinan al-Shabibi, is seen as a politically independent economist who has led the bank since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Although al-Shabibi has not been charged with any crime yet, the allegations could give new ammunition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's critics that the Iraqi leader is trying to consolidate control over the country's institutions.

Iraqi Integrity Commission spokesman Hassan Karim Aati said it has received documents from a parliamentary committee investigating the allegations and is looking into the matter. The commission is Iraq's anti-corruption watchdog.

The investigation deals at least in part with alleged irregularities involving the exchange of Iraqi dinars for hard currency, according to Haitham al-Jabouri, a lawmaker involved in the investigation.

About 16 bank employees are targeted in the investigation, including the governor, according to al-Jabouri.

Before becoming governor, al-Shabibi worked for more than two decades for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

One of his lawyers, Waleed Mohammed al-Shabibi, defended the governor's innocence and insisted the charges are part of an effort to push his client out of office. The lawyer described himself as a relative of the governor.

"These charges are politically motivated. Al-Shabibi is honest and professional," said the lawyer. "The government is planning to replace him with another official who takes orders from the government."

The bank governor himself could not immediately be reached for comment, and spokespeople for the central bank said they are not authorized to discuss the allegations.

Deputy central bank governor Mudhhir Mohammed Salih separately confirmed he is among those being investigated, but said he has no further details.

The government has not announced any arrest warrants in the case, though al-Jabouri said he understands such a step could happen soon.

Repeated attempts to reach Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, the spokesman for Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees the country's courts and prosecutor's office, were unsuccessful. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh also could not be reached for comment.

Iraq has rapidly increased its oil output following years of war and neglect, and that has translated into sharply higher reserves of hard currency. The country earlier this year surpassed next-door Iran as OPEC's second-largest oil producer, and its currency reserves recently topped $60 billion.

But the bank's efforts to keep the dinar stable through its sales of dollars have come under pressure, particularly over the past year.

Salih, the bank's deputy governor, said in January that he believed the civil war in neighboring Syria and international sanctions against Iran had caused a jump in demand for dollars sold by Baghdad as greenbacks flowed out of the country.

He said opportunistic businessmen were buying up dollars and then reselling them on the black market to customers across the border, making it harder for the bank to keep Iraq's dinar stable at close to 1,200 dinars per dollar.


Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin, Sameer N. Yacoub and Bushra Juhi contributed reporting.