Ex-minister arrested in Iraq

Iraq's biggest corruption scandal for years is deepening with the arrest of the former trade minister whose plane, while en route to Dubai, was ordered to turn around and return to Baghdad.

Abdul Falah al-Sudani, a British-Iraqi joint national, appeared in court yesterday on charges of corruption at the Trade Ministry which imports and distributes some $5bn (£3bn) worth of food aid rations. His arrest was reportedly ordered by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has pledged to clamp down on corruption.

Mr al-Sudani, 62, resigned on 14 May after being heavily criticised in parliament. The arrest warrant alleges his ministry imported expired food and signed illegal contracts. He denies the charges. The Trade Ministry is very important to Iraqis because it oversees the rationing system under which everybody with a ration card receives a nine-item basket of food and other essentials almost free of charge.

Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the campaigning group Transparency International and the theft of state funds is crippling reconstruction. The case against Mr al-Sudani is being seen by many Iraqis as a test case which will decide if Mr Maliki is really willing to act against corruption.

In the past ministers and officials accused of corruption have been able to leave the country. In 2005, the former defence minister Hazem al-Shaalan left Iraq after refusing to answer fraud charges over the disappearance of $1bn for arms procurement.