Iraq must take responsibility for 2004 murder of US contractors

Iraq must take responsibility for 2004 murder of US contractors
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Iraqi President Barham Salih recently wrote encouragingly that Iraq has emerged from its war ready for a new era of stability and responsible government. In an effort to attract foreign investment, he announced the creation of a Reconstruction Commission charged with attracting public-private partnerships and foreign business, empowering the commission to create “the regulatory and legal frameworks to attract” international investors.

Mr. Salih is right — a secure and predictable legal system that recognizes and enforces contracts and other commercial laws is the foundation of a vibrant economy. Investors and business owners are far more willing to invest in jobs, factories and infrastructure in countries that recognize the sanctity of commercial agreements. In today’s international legal and investment climate, the recognition of legitimate foreign court judgements is the demarcation line for countries who wish to be part of the international system and those who give only lip service to the “rule of law.”  

So far on nearly all counts, Iraq’s leadership is off to a very bad start.

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In August, in an unprecedented 107-page ruling, the United States District Court in Washington ruled against the government of Iraq and in favor of the widow of Dale Stoffel, a U.S. citizen who was brutally murdered in Iraq in 2004. Judge Royce Lamberth found Iraq had breached its contract with Mr. Stoffel’s Pennsylvania company, which led to the murder of two Americans — Mr. Stoffel, and his construction manager, Joe Wemple.   

The facts of this case, and Iraq’s behavior over the past 15 years, are particularly egregious and should give any outside investor pause. Mr. Stoffel’s company received one of the first contracts awarded by the new Iraqi government in 2004. Mr. Stoffel’s job was simple: help Iraq stand up so the U.S. could stand down by refurbishing old Iraqi military equipment. The contract was overseen both by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (MOD) and U.S. Gen. David Petraeus’ command. Gen. Petraeus “fast-tracked” this priority project so that Iraq could help secure its Jan. 30, 2005, elections.   

Instead of paying the company doing the work, Iraqi MOD officials inserted a Lebanese middleman, Raymond Rahme Zayna, and paid him nearly $25 million in cash that was due to Mr. Stoffel’s company, presumably in order to rob Stoffel and split the money with corrupt Iraqi officials. Unsurprisingly, that money disappeared — right into Mr. Zayna’s personal bank account in Lebanon.  

After working without pay for several months, Mr. Stoffel went home for Thanksgiving, telling his family that his life wasn’t worth the $25 million Iraq already owed him.  

But, the project was so important to both Iraq and the Coalition that Gen. Petraeus ordered his team to get Mr. Stoffel back in-country. Mr. Stoffel was convinced to return, and assured that Iraq would pay its bills. Upon his return to Iraq, Mr. Stoffel went back to work. In a meeting with both top U.S. and senior Iraqi officials, Iraq promised to pay Mr. Stoffel. On his way to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense on Dec. 8, 2004, to finally pick up payment, Mr. Stoffel was ambushed and both he and Mr. Wemple were executed, his body left on the side of the road for two days. The last person Mr. Stoffel emailed was Zayna, letting him know he was on his way.

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Iraq never sought to recover the money, nor did it ever pay Mr. Stoffel’s widow or his two now-teenage children. Zayna (or Rahme/Rahmeh) has parlayed his theft into hundreds of millions. He is major shareholder of several Lebanese banks and his multinational company, ZR Group Holding, has invested in media, IT and telecom, aviation, transportation, real estate and more. Several Iraqi MOD officials responsible for the betrayal of Mr. Stoffel were tried and convicted in Iraq for the scam, but not for the murders — a fact that Iraqi officials intentionally withheld from Judge Lamberth for a decade, despite repeated inquiries. Gen. Petraeus testified at trial that Mr. Stoffel’s murder was a “terrible blow” to Coalition efforts. 

To add insult to injury, the Iraqi government used procedural gamesmanship and outright lies to stall the U.S. court proceedings for over eight years after Mr. Stoffel’s widow exhausted attempts to resolve the matter politically and was forced to file a lawsuit. Iraq failed to produce documents, failed to produce witnesses and repeatedly lied to the court on critical issues, including an attempt to paint the Lebanese businessman as the rightful payee for the contract. As late as April 2019, Iraq filed an affidavit from its Ministry of Justice stating that none of its officials, nor Mr. Zayna, was convicted of corruption related to the theft of money owed to Mr. Stoffel’s company — a lie unmasked after trial when Iraq finally produced the conviction of its own officials for this very transaction.   

The U.S. court’s judgment against Iraq will do little for the Stoffel family unless and until Iraq stops stalling and abides by the court’s order. Thus far, Iraq’s current leadership — who seek a role in the community of nations that abide by their legal responsibilities — has ignored the court and family.  

Any prospective investor and businessperson should shudder at the most recent example of the Iraqi government’s regard for businessmen operating on its soil, and for the rule of law. 

Mr. Salih and his government are missing an important opportunity to do the right thing. If it is to succeed, the Iraqi government must demonstrate to the world that it takes responsibility for the actions of its officials, adheres to Iraqi, American and international laws, and pays its legitimate debts. Moreover, this is an opportunity for Iraqi leaders to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that this administration no longer will tolerate corruption.

The Stoffel family deserves much better. Americans deserve better after the lives and treasure we sacrificed in Iraq. In fact, Congress should be outraged that a current recipient of substantial U.S. aid has abused our courts and legal system for nearly a decade while demonstrating a total lack of respect for our fallen. 

Officials’ attitudes that “it didn’t happen on my watch” are disgraceful and scandalous, considering that several members of the current Iraqi leadership were key officials at the Ministry of Defense and Finance at the time of this tragedy. At a minimum, they should be called to account. It’s past time that the Iraqi government step up.      

Mary Beth Long is former assistant secretary for international security affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense and chair of NATO’s High Level Group, as well as a former CIA case officer. She is co-founder of Global Alliance Advisors LLC. Follow her on Twitter @LongDefense.

Editor's note: This article was edited from its original version.