The Baghdad job: who was behind history’s biggest bank heist?

Criminals stole $2.5bn from Iraq’s largest state bank in broad daylight. Nicolas Pelham follows their trail

The Economist/ 1843 Magazine: July 27th 2023 

On a scorching September day last year, Hussein Kanber Agha reached the front door of his house in central Baghdad. He had got in the habit of scanning the street for anything out of the ordinary before turning the key. In his free hand he clutched a tattered brown leather briefcase. There was a chance someone might kill him for its contents.

Kanber wasn’t used to acting as though he were in a spy film. A 49-year-old consultant with a passion for digital banking, he was born in Iraq but had spent much of his adulthood in Stockholm. He led a quiet, orderly life there: working, going to the gym and drinking coffee. Then, last summer, Iraq’s finance minister asked him to return to Baghdad and investigate rumours about a theft at Rafidain, the country’s largest state-owned bank.

One particular account at Rafidain presented a tempting target to those in the know. Oil companies (and other firms operating in Iraq) are obliged to pay tax in advance when they receive a contract. The tax authority keeps these deposits in Account 60032. Firms can claim a rebate if they end up making less profit than expected but the bureaucratic hurdles are extensive. Unclaimed rebates hang around for five years before reverting to the treasury. Over time hundreds of millions of dollars accumulated in Account 60032, where they sat, alluringly. Then in mid-2022 word trickled out that huge amounts of this money were being withdrawn.

In theory the finance minister could have asked one of the country’s half-dozen oversight bodies to investigate. But Iraq is home to powerful militias, each with its own political wing and business empire. They are known collectively as the factions, and they exert vast influence over every aspect of government. Bribery is rampant. Those who cannot be bought are threatened (“You will leave Iraq horizontal,” an official recalls being told when she refused to do one faction’s bidding). A political outsider was needed.

The accountants told Kanber they didn’t want anything more to do with the investigation. They were afraid of the consequences

Kanber – thin, slightly stooped, the kind of man who drove an old Kia – seemed the perfect choice. He came from one of Baghdad’s old merchant families, and had fled Iraq in 1992 at the age of 19 after Saddam Hussein’s thugs detained him at a checkpoint. He moved to Sweden, where he earned a master’s degree at the Stockholm School of Economics and worked for a Swedish bank. He was on track for a conventional life as a European businessman until America overthrew the Iraqi regime in 2003.

Like many in the diaspora, Kanber was excited at the prospect of living in a free Iraq. He quit his job and moved to Baghdad to set up a mobile-payment system. But over the next five years the city was ravaged by sectarian violence. At one point 40 bodies were turning up on the streets every day. Eventually Kanber gave up and returned to Sweden.

In 2021 he was back in Iraq working on a banking-reform project for usaid, America’s international development agency. While there he heard rumours that the tax authority’s account at Rafidain was being plundered. When the finance minister asked him to investigate in August 2022, Kanber, by then back in Stockholm, didn’t relish the prospect, but he felt a duty to see that the inquiry was done “properly”. Also, he was curious: “Wouldn’t you want to know, if there was a huge theft like this?”

Kanber suggested that the finance minister discreetly assemble a team of trusted lawyers and accountants, then flew to Baghdad to join them. When they met he told the group to go to Rafidain immediately with a letter from the minister requesting copies of Account 60032’s statements. He knew that convenient fires often break out in Iraqi record departments when investigations begin.
Kadhimi claims to have been distracted by COVID!!!!

The next day the team gathered in a conference room at the ministry of finance to examine the stack of print-outs. One of the accountants quickly spotted the two most important pieces of information: the balance at the start of the year and the most recent one. Account 60032 had been almost completely emptied.

The team called everyone they knew at the bank. Within a few hours their sources provided the names of five companies to whom the money had supposedly been transferred. None of them was a big oil firm. In fact, no one had even heard of them before.

At that point the lawyers and accountants told Kanber they didn’t want anything more to do with the investigation. It looked like looting on a huge scale, which meant at least one of Iraq’s murderous factions was likely to be involved. If Kanber wanted to dig further, he would have to do so alone.

First he had to prove that a theft had actually taken place. The tax authority, the nominal victim of the crime, denied that anything untoward had happened. Its balance sheets showed that all its money was still there, because technically no rebates had been claimed. Kanber needed to find out how and why the money had worked its way into the five companies’ accounts.

Iraqi state institutions, Kanber later told me, are profoundly opaque places. Records are incomplete; many officials have their own agenda. Yet there are some people working within them who simply want to do their job well. Kanber thought he could spot them by the way they dressed – if they didn’t wear brash clothes, they might be worth approaching. He had neither rewards nor threats to wield. But he believed some people might simply want to do the right thing.

“Your life is going to be threatened anyway, so you might as well be corrupt and make money”

To avoid attracting attention, Kanber met these middle managers in coffee shops and restaurants rather than at their offices. About a week into his investigation, one of his contacts sent Kanber a message saying that they had received a delivery that might be of interest. At the finance ministry the brown briefcase was waiting for him.

Kanber opened the briefcase when he got home. Copies of 247 cheques made out from Account 60032 to the five companies spread across the table and onto the floor. He spent hours sorting them into chronological order, the first dated September 2021 and the last August 2022. The document haul wasn’t proof of a fraud (though the amounts were often suspiciously round numbers), but it did irrefutably show where the missing funds had gone. Around $2.5bn, an amount comparable to the country’s entire health-care budget, had been diverted. It later transpired that it had been carried off in trucks in broad daylight. And the withdrawals had been approved by some of the highest officials in the land.

Modern Iraq is like a film set of a democratic country. The scenery looks right – a public-integrity commission, a supreme judicial council, a parliamentary ethics committee – but lacks solidity. In reality, one former official told me, the country is a “gangster land”. The institutions that ought to maintain accountability are often used to shake people down. Officials estimate that the quantity of money that has disappeared from the public coffers since 2003 exceeds $300bn.

Part of the reason for the extraordinary scale of corruption is the power-sharing system introduced by the Americans in 2003. The scheme, dreamt up by exiles while Saddam Hussein was still in power, divided the infrastructure of the state between parties claiming to represent each of Iraq’s main religious and ethnic groups. After Saddam was overthrown these groups plundered the country’s resources to spread patronage. Party bosses, many of them affiliated to militias, divided up the lucrative ministries among themselves through a process of horse- trading.

In 2015 popular frustration at corruption exploded into a series of protests. Thousands marched in Baghdad against the “thieves” in charge. The prime minister at the time, Haider al-Abadi, decided to appoint technocrats as ministers in an attempt to mollify the protesters. But the factions didn’t plan on relinquishing control; instead they found posts in government departments for their lackeys, who then bribed and bullied the ministers. In such circumstances, there is little incentive for anyone to stay honest. “Your life is going to be threatened anyway, so you might as well be corrupt and make money,” explained Suha Najjar, who worked for a government body until threats forced her to flee the country last November. “That’s why everyone is corrupt.”

On paper, Iraq is a rich country. It is one of the largest oil producers in the world, earning more than $115bn from last year’s exports. Yet little of this reaches ordinary people. Around the corner from the tax authority’s office is a slum where families are packed in eight to a room. When it rains, the rubbish-strewn alleyways flood with sewage. When it’s hot, the sun beats down on corrugated-iron rooftops, turning homes into ovens. Hospitals are so poorly maintained that they have been known to burst into flames. The country has the second-highest child mortality rate in the Middle East.

The political elite live in a different world. I once visited the home of an official at the tax authority: it dripped with fake Louis XIV gilt. There were gilded armchairs, gilded grandfather clocks and a gilded mantelpiece. The carpets were as thick as sheep’s fleeces.

Two big powers – Iran and America – loom over Iraq, waging a tug-of-war for influence

Enrichment is not the only motivating factor in politics. Ideology still counts. Two big powers – Iran and America – loom over the country, waging a tug-of-war for influence. Mustafa Kadhimi, the prime minister when Kanber was hired, was in the West’s camp: he used to live in Britain and maintained good relationships with the cia from his time as Iraq’s intelligence chief. Like many in his clique, he came from Iraq’s cosmopolitan elite and owned property in London. Pitted against him was a coalition of parties and militias loyal to Iran, known as the Fatah alliance. Representatives of this camp often bore the tell-tale signs of new money: shiny suits and overpowering cologne. Their second homes were in Iran.

Tension between the two sides had been building for many months by the time word of the heist surfaced. Sometimes this flared into violence. Kadhimi survived three assassination attempts, including an attack on his house by an explosive-laden drone in November 2021. mps from the opposing pro-Iran group “would come to my office and threaten me publicly in front of my employees with prison [and] death”, says Najjar, the former official.

Ehsan Abdeljabbar, the finance minister who hired Kanber, was also a member of Kadhimi’s Western-oriented camp. Abdeljabbar’s interest in the Rafidain case may not have been purely public-spirited. By the summer of 2022 the parliamentary coalition backing Kadhimi was disintegrating, which meant the Fatah alliance was in a position to appoint a new prime minister. The tax office was known to be controlled by Fatah and a scandal like this had the potential to undermine them, giving Kadhimi and his ministers a chance of political survival.

Abdeljabbar told 1843 magazine he was driven by the desire to expose wrongdoing and establish the truth. Whatever his motivations, he impressed on Kanber that he had to work with great haste, calling him several times a day to check on his progress. In mid-September, when Kanber received the briefcase, Abdeljabbar’s own situation looked precarious: Fatah were planning a vote of no confidence in him. Kanber not only needed to finish the report before that happened, he also had to produce enough documentary evidence that even the most partisan Iraqi mp couldn’t ignore it.

“This report is going to get butchered,” Kanber remembers Abdeljabbar telling him, warning that a single mistake, however small, would discredit the entire investigation. Kanber tried to anticipate what detractors might say. He drafted an urgent letter in Abdeljabbar’s name to the big international oil companies operating in Iraq – more than 30 of them – asking if they had claimed a rebate in the past year. Virtually all of them said no. He dug into the history of each of the five companies that had received cheques to see if there was any activity that might plausibly justify rebates of billions of dollars. There wasn’t – three of them had been registered just before the heist began.

Kanber wasn’t finished until October 10th, the eve of the no-confidence vote. In order for the report to have any political heft, it had to be formally presented to the finance ministry in the name of a relevant official. Who could he get to read the report, digest its consequences and agree to sign it in less than 24 hours? Kanber decided to go to the house of Abdul Sattar Hashem Ali Mawla, an official at the tax authority whom he’d known since childhood.

He turned up at Mawla’s home with the report on a usb stick. Mawla’s printer wasn’t working properly, and the two men stood awkwardly beneath the Shia religious texts lining the shelves of his study, as the pages sputtered out. Mawla read them and, after a long pause, scribbled his signature.

If all the stolen notes were stacked on top of each other, the pile would rise higher than Mount Kilimanjaro

The following morning, hours before the no-confidence vote, the report was delivered to the parliamentary speaker, the public-integrity commission and Kadhimi, the prime minister. “These [five front] companies do not have tax deposits and do not have a power of attorney from any third party for withdrawing tax deposits,” it read. “The withdrawals cannot be justified in any way whatsoever.” It named the owners of the five front companies: two of them were registered to a man called Nur Zuheir.

Iraqis were used to scandal, but the scale and brazenness of this theft shocked even them. Day and night, Iraqi news channels ran coverage of what they dubbed the “heist of the century”.

Abdeljabbar lost the vote anyway. Kanber booked a Qatar Airways flight back to Stockholm. He felt tense as he approached Baghdad’s international airport, as he knew that agents allied to Fatah had influence with security there. What if they knew about his role in the investigation and arrested him? In the end he passed through passport control without incident and flew out of the country that his report had left seething.

Nur Zuheir was 41 when he was arrested, but he looked younger. After his picture was splashed in the papers I heard Iraqis liken him to Pablo Escobar. He certainly bore a passing resemblance to the Colombian drug lord: fat, unshaven cheeks, drooping eyes and a self-confident swagger. Kanber’s report named two other businessmen as recipients of the tax authority’s money. But Zuheir was the only one people talked about. (When 1843 magazine approached Zuheir for comment on the allegations in this article he said that he was a law-abiding citizen, and vehemently denied them all, adding that he had never indulged in any crime.)

Zuheir came from Basra, a predominantly Shia province in southern Iraq where much of the country’s oil is produced and exported. A local academic described Zuheir to me as a mukhalas, or fixer: someone who made introductions to the right people to smooth the movement of goods and services. At some point, he moved to Baghdad to deploy these skills on a national level.

 Zuheir knew how to make friends quickly. The courtship would begin with a Rolex watch, said one politician on the receiving end of his largesse (she refused the gift). She heard from colleagues in parliament that a positive response to the present would typically be followed up with a visit from a middleman bearing wads of cash. These presents would be accompanied by requests to sign off on appointments and contracts.

I didn’t understand the scope of Zuheir’s influence until a few months after the scandal broke when I visited the tax authority’s office. It was a desultory place: the floors were covered with brown linoleum and the window frames were coated in dust. A clerk pulled me aside and showed me the door to the director-general’s office on the fifth floor. Zuheir used to visit several times a week, he said. Another source said that Zuheir parked his car directly outside the front door, a privilege usually reserved for the head of the tax authority alone, and walked in swinging his gold prayer-beads, leaving a pair of bodyguards at reception.

To issue large cheques from the tax authority required the signatures of at least 12 different officials. The process often took weeks, but Zuheir obtained his in a fraction of that time. According to two clerks who worked there, Zuheir personally cajoled, bribed and threatened employees in the tax authority to speed up the ponderous pace of operations.

There were other delays to contend with. The supreme audit board, an oversight body that was reasonably punctilious by Iraqi standards, was supposed to give permission before the tax authority issued large cheques. In the summer of 2021, a senior official asked that the board be relieved of this responsibility. This left the tax authority, as one Iraqi finance expert put it, “like a playground without teachers”.

The gossip among the Iraqi elite was that a lot of the heist money had ended up in Jordan’s capital, Amman

Now the heist could begin in earnest. When a request for a rebate cheque came in, men in Zuheir’s pay would bring the paperwork up to the fifth floor in leather-bound folders for the head of the tax authority to sign. On the ground floor was a branch of the Rafidain bank, where cashiers issued the cheques. Most of these were cashed immediately at a larger branch a few kilometres away.

Over the course of a year, Zuheir turned a sclerotic state bank into a model of efficiency. A state bank official told me that Rafidain normally processed about 2bn Iraqi dinars a day. On a single day during the heist this figure went up to 40bn. “Cheques for tens of millions were issued in 24 hours, and the funds [were made] available in cash the following day,” said an accountant who works regularly with the tax authority.

Withdrawing $2.5bn in cash in less than a year would be a logistical challenge in any country, let alone one whose highest-value banknote – the 50,000 dinar bill – was equivalent to about $35. If all the stolen notes were stacked on top of each other, the pile would rise higher than Mount Kilimanjaro. Trucks had to be used to ferry the heist money about.

The comings and goings were so obvious that the manager of a company that was meant to have a monopoly on transporting banknotes wrote to Rafidain in January 2022 expressing concern. Yet no one seems to have stopped the vehicles.

It’s not clear what happened to the money next. Some of it appears to have been spent in Iraq. Several politicians and officials told me about a cluster of properties that they believed Nur Zuheir had bought in the posh Mansour district, where he lived. But most of the cash, according to former security officials, was converted into dollars and taken overseas.

 Exporting suitcases full of dollars through Baghdad airport ought to have been hard. Most passengers board the plane only after five x-rays, two inspections by sniffer dogs and a body search. But there are two ways to pass through with minimal intrusion, an Iraqi spook told me. One is through the intelligence agency’s airport lounge. Unlike the dingy passenger hall, which dates back to the era of Saddam Hussein, this waiting room boasts clean white tiles, spotlights and walls lined with Iraqi art. Mercedes limousines wait outside to drive vip passengers to their private jets. The second way in is through a locked gate in the perimeter wall, where heavy loads usually enter.

Zuheir used both routes, according to an intelligence official. Security guards would wave him through to the intelligence agency’s lounge where he waited to board his private jet. Vans would drive through the gate to his plane. The spook says he once saw the floodlights on the runway cut out as eight vans rolled in. The lights only came on again ten minutes later, by which time the cargo had presumably been stowed. Zuheir made more than 20 trips abroad in 2021 and 2022, according to a parliamentary report. The gossip among the Iraqi elite was that a lot of the heist money had ended up in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

A former intelligence officer told me that when Zuheir got wind of Kanber’s investigation, he offered the finance minister, through an intermediary, tens of millions of dollars in exchange for abandoning the probe. (Other officials say that Abdeljabbar, the finance minister, had been looking for a cut and was turned down. Abdeljabbar denies any direct or indirect contact with Zuheir.) The report was delivered anyway, and two weeks later Zuheir received a tip-off that he was about to be arrested, according to a different intelligence officer working on the case. He rushed to the airport in a limousine and drove onto the runway where his plane was waiting, the officer said. But before it could take off, security forces burst in and arrested him. Zuheir was rumoured to have been moved from the airport prison to a “super vip” detention centre, complete with a swimming pool, though judicial authorities deny this.

“It’s an elite that shares the spoils. There are no good guys”

Shortly after Zuheir’s arrest Kadhimi was toppled as prime minister. The pro-Iranian camp appointed its own man, Muhammad Sudani, to lead the government. Publicly, Sudani embraced Kanber’s investigation and promised that no one would be spared the law. A month into his term, he gave a press conference flanked by two giant stacks of dinars, and announced triumphantly that he had recovered $125m from Zuheir, a small fraction of the missing billions.

Shortly afterwards Zuheir was released on a two-week bail. Officials said this was to help the authorities recover more funds. Months later he was still at large. When I visited Iraq this spring, I drove past Zuheir’s mansion in Mansour. The lights were on. Iraqis I spoke to claimed he had been spotted in Dubai, Amman and London. In April 2023 the courts even unfroze his assets. One of Sudani’s associates told me the prime minister had no choice. “If he hadn’t released Nur Zuheir he’d have lost his head.” When 1843 magazine asked Sudani about the release of Zuheir, a spokesman said it was a decision by the courts, not the government, adding that charges against Zuheir had not been dropped.

The man at the pinnacle of the Iraqi court system is Faiq Zidan, president of the supreme judicial council. Zidan inspires fear. A former ambassador and a former Iraqi intelligence officer both told me that he had the power to make cases disappear (Zidan denies this, saying his role is “administrative only”). He was one of two people in Iraq I was told to avoid crossing. “He has immense powers,” said a former official. “This is very dangerous.”

In person Zidan is friendly enough. He gave me a lengthy account of the state of the case. Zuheir has been allowed to travel so that he could liquidate his overseas assets and pay back the Iraqi state, Zidan said. Apparently this has already resulted in around $270m being recovered. Surprisingly Zidan also seemed minded to give Zuheir the benefit of the doubt, saying that he may have been a genuine agent for companies seeking a rebate.

It wasn’t immediately obvious why Zidan would be trying to make life easier for Zuheir, if that’s what was happening (Zidan rejects the suggestion of any irregularity in his conduct). Men like him don’t do the bidding of fixers from Basra. Current and former Iraqi officials had another explanation for the decision to release the heist’s prime suspect. “Zuheir was just a puppet,” said one. “A patsy,” said another. “He was a frontman,” said a third. But for whom?

Sudani’s government soon began to take the case in a new direction. Officials seemed to shift their focus away from Zuheir and instead issued warrants for the arrest of the people involved in exposing him. (According to a spokesman for Sudani, Zuheir had confessed to getting help from senior figures in the previous administration.) As they came under scrutiny, members of Kadhimi’s camp started contacting me. They were adamant that Zuheir had been an agent for Sudani’s backers: the factional bosses with links to Iran. “Don’t let any of those motherfuckers get away with it,” one told me.

Zuheir parked his car directly outside the front door, a privilege usually reserved for the head of the tax authority alone, and walked in swinging his gold prayer-beads

One member of Kadhimi’s team who troubled me was Haitham al-Jubori, a finance adviser. I had learned from his friends that Jubori used to employ Zuheir as a personal assistant when he was head of the parliamentary finance committee. According to an Iraqi intelligence official who knows Jubori personally, Zuheir would call the owners of businesses that the committee were looking into and offer to suspend investigations in exchange for payments. The operation allegedly brought in around $200,000 a month. According to a letter seen by 1843 magazine, it was Jubori who had recommended the tax authority should be allowed to issue large cheques without the oversight of the government auditing body.

Jubori did not respond to 1843 magazine’s attempts to reach him for comment, but he told Middle East Eye, a news site, that he had simply proposed that the supreme audit board should stay within the limits of its statutory role. He was arrested soon after Sudani took over. Kadhimi’s allies suggested I shouldn’t read too much into the fact that Jubori had been advising them (“When you have 200 advisers, sometimes the lowlife slip in,” explained one.)

Another question I had about Kadhimi related to the flights. Baghdad airport fell directly under the prime minister’s authority. Though technically under a travel ban for his alleged involvement in a previous fraud, Zuheir flew freely in and out of the country during the period the money was being withdrawn from Rafidain. How had Kadhimi let this happen?
                                                              When he was asked about Haitham Al-Jubori, Kadhimi claimed he didn’t know him!

 Kadhimi suggested we meet at the Grove, a five-star hotel with a plush golf course just outside London. Kadhimi had relocated to Britain for his safety in November 2022. He arrived at our meeting in a black limousine. Trump had stayed here, he reminded me as we sat down to sip mocktails on the flagstone terrace. Kadhimi was quiet and courteous. Though he speaks English he preferred to conduct our interview in Arabic, mumbling as though in a deliberate attempt to avoid saying anything quotable.

When I asked about Jubori, Kadhimi replied that he didn’t know him. He then corrected himself and admitted it was a “dark” reality that Jubori had been appointed. He presented himself as a passive victim of circumstance. Yet he had been the prime minister, and for most of his tenure remained head of the country’s intelligence service as well. He must have had some power, and had at least an inkling about what was going on. I tried again. Hadn’t his security apparatchiks smoothed Zuheir’s path through the airport? Kadhimi dodged the question. “First we have to look at the banking officials,” he replied.

His justification for not spotting the heist morphed throughout our conversation. At the start, it was his staff’s fault. Then he’d been distracted by covid-19, and the plunge in oil prices that ensued, and the Trump administration’s confrontational attitude to Iran. It wasn’t that much money, he insisted, compared with the hundreds of billions lost to corruption since 2003. It was definitely not true that most of the money had disappeared through the airport. A phrase he kept on using was “100% no”.

Later I wrote to Kadhimi and mentioned a story I’d heard. A contact of mine is related to an Iraqi politician who, in May 2022, needed urgent medical treatment abroad. According to my contact, Kadhimi had offered the politician a seat on a private plane at his disposal. When the politician got on board, he was surprised to discover Zuheir there. The plane dropped the politician in Amman and Zuheir flew on to Beirut, my source said. Kadhimi wrote back categorically denying the claim, which he said was “baseless”. (In the same letter he said that Jubori had been hired as a technical expert not an adviser, and had been reprimanded at the time for inflating his role.)

The president of the supreme judicial council was one of two people in Iraq I was told to avoid crossing. “He has immense powers,” said a former official. “This is very dangerous”

My dealings with Kadhimi were frustrating. Zuheir must have had help at the highest levels. The two main factions each insisted that it came from the other one. Then it dawned on me. Why shouldn’t players from both sides have had a stake in the operation?

Sajad Jiyad, a political analyst, told me he reckoned that seven factions from across the spectrum had reaped profits from the heist. “Iran-backed, us-backed, self-styled reformers, supporters of the status quo – all factions benefit from corruption schemes,” he said. “These opponents fight each other in public but work together in private to enrich themselves, regardless of political and ideological positions.” A Western consultant in Baghdad pointed out that some of the militia leaders who had fought each other sent their children to the same exclusive Baghdad schools. “It’s an elite that shares the spoils,” he said. “There are no good guys.”

In the murk of Iraqi politics, Kanber, the Swedish-Iraqi investigator, always seemed to be a beacon of clarity. He spoke with precision, in measured terms. People that I respected respected him. (Ali Allawi, a former finance minister, described him as “probably the only honest person left in Iraq”.) His nerdiness was endearing – the wallpaper on his laptop was a jigsaw puzzle of the Stockholm School of Economics, with one piece missing.

Yet as I went deeper into the case, some things about Kanber didn’t seem to add up. He was supposedly bent on rooting out corruption, but he displayed great deference to Ehsan Abdeljabbar, the finance minister who had hired him. This confused me, as several people had told me that Abdeljabbar himself had been caught up in cases of alleged corruption in the past when he was at the oil ministry. (Abdeljabbar said that the cases had been launched by someone with a grudge against him and that 90% of them were closed.)

 Sometimes Kanber gave such detailed answers to my questions about the case I felt like I was reliving his investigation in real time. At other times he was inexplicably reticent. I never understood his apparent lack of interest in the ultimate destination of the stolen money. “I didn’t follow up,” he would say nonchalantly.

Then, in June, a disturbing email popped up in my inbox. An Iraqi researcher in Washington had compiled a short dossier of unverified material on Kadhimi, Kanber and others. It implied they were part of a network that had “enabled” the heist. According to the dossier, Kanber was not quite the outsider I’d taken him for – his stepfather was Kadhimi’s mentor. The dossier suggested that Kanber had played a role in the appointment of the director-general of Rafidain bank shortly before the heist. In a surreal twist it also claimed that a man once reported to have been arrested in connection with a previous fraud at Rafidain was Kanber’s first cousin.

We met in a café near Oxford Street in London a couple of days later. Kanber’s stamina for discussing the technical elements of banking, fuelled by nicotine pouches and cappuccinos, remained undimmed. But when I brought up the allegations that had been circulating, his courteous phrases gained a sharper edge. He said he was well aware of the dossier’s existence, which he described as amusing, though he didn’t look very amused. He dismissed its allegations as “fanciful”.

Some however turned out to be true. Kanber admitted that he knew Kadhimi well, but insisted he didn’t get on with his stepfather, and they weren’t part of a cosy cabal. He had been involved in the recruitment of some new staff at Rafidain bank after an earlier scandal, but he hadn’t made the sole decision on appointments. Kanber didn’t dispute that Hamid al-Najjar, the man associated with the earlier fraud case, was his cousin; in fact he had tried to start a bank with him before Najjar’s legal troubles began. If you wanted to do business in Iraq, he told me, you didn’t have much choice about the kind of people you worked with.

Robbing a state bank and spending the money isn’t a fair or accountable mechanism for distributing wealth – but it is swift

The encounter made me feel miserable. I’d always liked Kanber. No one questioned the findings of his report. His readiness to subject himself to a journalist’s questions at all hours of the day was not the behaviour of someone with something to hide. He seemed genuinely worried about his safety if he ever went back to Iraq, which wouldn’t bother someone with powerful friends. (“I’m a tissue. They’ll throw me out like this,” he said, flicking his wrist.) But the interview didn’t dispel my sense that there was a lot about him I didn’t know. Kanber seemed depressed too. “In retrospect,” he said wearily as we wrapped up, “I think we wasted six months of our lives.”

The Iraqi people certainly didn’t seem appreciative. Although the phrase “heist of the century” buzzed through Iraqi social media, there has been surprisingly little pressure to bring its perpetrators to justice. In 2019, during the last big demonstration against corruption, security forces fired live rounds into the crowd. Perhaps Iraqis were done protesting. A few people told me that the heist might actually have been good for Iraq, as it injected dormant funds into the economy. “It’s better to spend it in Baghdad than to leave it in an account,” an Iraqi businessman reasoned.

This spring Baghdad looked brighter than I had ever seen it. When I first visited Iraq in the last months of Saddam’s dictatorship, the city was drab and dun. Its buildings were the shade of the desert that surrounds the city.

Now it was bursting with colour. New apartment blocks were sprouting up everywhere. Restaurants were opening. Pavements that America’s tanks and Humvees had ground to dust were finally being rebuilt. The shrines of the Shia saints, built of bare brick under Saddam, glistened with thousands of crystals. At least some of the money fuelling this is likely to have trickled down from the heist. Robbing a state bank and spending the money isn’t a fair or accountable mechanism for distributing wealth – but it is swift.

It seems unlikely that any of the heist’s real beneficiaries, whoever they are, will face justice. The miasma of guilt that clings to the entire political elite means there is little accountability for individuals. Though Sudani’s office insists it is pursuing the investigation vigorously, there have been few announcements since his press conference last year. “Let’s be realistic,” Kadhimi told me as we finished our mocktails in London. “This money will kind of go into thin air. It will disappear, disappear.”

You can watch the accompanying film of Nicolas’ investigation here.

Nicolas Pelham is The Economist’s Middle East correspondent

illustrations: mike mcquade