Former Iraq trade minister arrested

BAGHDAD: Iraq's former trade minister Abdel Falah al-Sudani was arrested on Saturday when trying to flee the country in the wake of a graft scandal after his plane was ordered back to Baghdad airport.

The minister was on board a flight to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which turned back to the capital so the minister could be arrested, said Sabah al-Saedi, head of the Iraqi parliament's corruption and integrity commission.

"The minister was trying to escape from justice and was headed to the UAE," said Saedi.

"After some phone calls were made to judicial authorities and the airport, the airplane was turned back and the minister arrested," he added.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office on Monday announced that Sudani had resigned amid allegations of corruption and embezzlement linked to the nation's food assistance programme.

"An arrest warrant was issued against the minister under the charge of corruption," said Saedi.

"He is the main person responsible for corruption in the ministry."

Sudani, a member of Maliki's Shiite Dawa faction, had already been questioned by parliament over claims relating to imports for Iraq's food rationing programme.

Maliki on Wednesday vowed to root out graft in the Iraqi government, after Sudani quit.

"We will institute reforms ... and we will search for the truth," Maliki told reporters after talks in Baghdad with senior trade ministry officials.

"We will not stand with arms folded in the face of corruption. We will pursue those who are corrupt and bring them before the courts," Maliki said, while placing the ministry under his authority.

Sudani was accused of importing expired commodities -- sugar -- and procuring illegal contracts as well as failing to fight corruption in his ministry.

Maliki stressed on Wednesday he was immediately instituting measures to fight graft in Iraq.

"We will recruit new executives to replace those who are not qualified and we urge those in charge of purchases to sign contracts with large global companies directly rather than through intermediaries," the premier said.

The Commission on Public Integrity, tasked with fighting corruption in Iraq, announced on Wednesday that 997 officials are being investigated for alleged graft, including 53 people ranked director general or higher.

It said 120 Iraqis were arrested for corruption in April and May.

Watchdog group Transparency International ranked Iraq in 2008 as the world's third-most corrupt country behind Somalia and Myanmar.

The trade ministry operates a nearly six-billion dollar annual budget that provides a monthly public food distribution programme for Iraqis. It also manages the import of grain, seeds and construction materials.

Iraq's food rationing system was established in 1995 as part of the United Nations oil-for-food programme following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The public distribution programme has been plagued by mismanagement and corruption since the 2003 US-led invasion.