Iraqi banker accused of ‘violations’ slams power grab

Ex-chief of Trade Bank of Iraq Hussein Al-Uzri says allegations are fabricated
Iraqi banker accused of ‘violations’ slams power grab
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki ordered a probe after alleged violations were uncovered at TBI
By Reuters
Tue 14 Jun 2011 08:58 AM

Last month, top Iraqi banker Hussein Al Uzri was telling
foreign investors in London about why they should put their money in the
"new Iraq".

Just over a week later, the head of the state-owned Trade
Bank of Iraq had fled the country, accused by Iraq's government of committing
"multiple violations" costing millions of dollars.

Uzri, 48, who had overseen the bank's development since 2003
into one of the largest and most profitable financial institutions in Iraq with
assets of more than $15bn, rejects the allegations as
"unsubstantiated" and "fabricated".

He said the bank, which partnered major US and European
banks to bring in billions of dollars for Iraq's post-war reconstruction, was
the victim of a power grab by individuals close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri
Al Maliki.

"It's about control of this bank," the US-educated
banker said by telephone in his first media interview since fleeing Iraq. For
his own security, he did not want to say from which country he was speaking.

"Having control of the bank gives them control of
substantial assets and they can basically utilise it," Uzri said, adding
he felt a sense of "terrible betrayal" about his summary dismissal as
chairman and president of the bank.

He believed the action by Maliki's government would damage
Iraq's relations with the international banking community and set back the
oil-producing country's efforts to rebuild after years of chaos, war and bloody
sectarian conflict.

A top Maliki aide, cabinet general secretary Ali Al Alaq,
has said authorities moved against the bank because its leadership was
suspected of violating banking regulations and issuing improperly secured
loans. Alaq said the irregular practices had cost the country "millions of
dollars".

Earlier this month, Maliki ordered a judicial investigation
into the bank over alleged "violations", and an arrest warrant was
issued for Uzri.

Military vehicles and armed Iraqi security personnel
surrounded and searched the bank on June 2, shortly after the prime minister
had paid a personal visit to the institution.

A British adviser to the bank's board, Sir Claude Hankes,
condemned the move as "political skulduggery". He said Uzri
had resisted efforts by government officials to try to make it undertake
"improper banking transactions".

Uzri scoffed at the government charges. He said the bank,
which was regularly audited by international auditors, could never have
obtained large credit lines from partners such as JPMorgan Chase , Deutsche
Bank and Standard Chartered if it was engaged in irregular practices.

"If they were not sure, or suspected anything, they
would not have been willing to give us such huge lines [of credit]," he
said.

Uzri, who in late May was one of the star speakers in London
at an investment forum organised by the Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBC),
said he believed his sudden removal after more than seven years at the head of
the bank would make international bankers and investors wary.

"It will only damage the reputation of the bank and its
employees and significantly set back 'normalisation' of life for Iraq,"
Uzri said.

He said he was shocked by the way the government ordered the
military raid against the bank on June 2. He said it followed immediately after
a meeting he had held with Maliki at the bank, which he described as
"cordial".

"The Prime Minister was there, he left and within half
an hour they came and they roughed up some of the employees, some of the
customers. They were looking for me, it seems," he added.

Alaq said Maliki had gone to give Uzri a chance to respond
to the allegations before the formal arrest warrant was served.

It was not clear how Uzri managed to escape the security net
and he gave no details of how he slipped out of the country.

The change at the high-profile Iraqi bank comes at a time
when Maliki is facing pressures on his fragile cross-sectarian coalition
government, which brings together representatives of the country's Shi'ite, Sunni
and Kurdish ethnic groups.

Popular protests across the country have been demanding
better public services and an end to official corruption as Maliki considers
whether to ask some US troops to stay on beyond a year-end deadline for their
withdrawal.

Iraq has been no stranger to corruption scandals since the
2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, with US and Iraqi authorities
and transparency watchdogs denouncing the haemorrhaging of billions of dollars
of missing funds.

Uzri acknowledged that his vision of a stable, prosperous
"new Iraq" free from sectarian politics could be premature.

"There is a still a ways to go," he said, adding
he would be working to clear his name from the allegations against him.

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