BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq has issued warrants for the arrest of some trade officials on corruption charges, including the head of the Iraqi Grain Board which imports millions of tons of wheat and rice each year, officials said.
Muthanna Jabbar, the Grain Board director, and Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudany's two brothers are among the Trade Ministry officials facing corruption charges, said Sabah al-Saedi, head of the Iraqi parliament's Integrity Committee.
The Trade Ministry denied wrongdoing, saying critics or disgruntled former employees wanted to sully its reputation.
"The ministry has evidence and legal reports to refute all these lies," it said.
The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is struggling to woo foreign investors still wary despite a sharp drop in the violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion.
For a country flush with oil revenue, whose government was rebuilt from the ground up since 2003, corruption is a major threat to the economy and efforts to fend off renewed violence.
The Trade Ministry said it was cooperating fully with the Iraqi judiciary and denied reports it had refused to hand over officials to Iraqi forces who came to detain them last week.
An official at Iraq's Integrity Commission, the government anticorruption office, said on condition of anonymity that the commission sent its forces to the ministry on April 29 to serve warrants to nine officials charged with corruption.
Saedi said ministry guards prevented forces from entering the building and fired shots in the air to scare them. They responded by also firing in the air, security officials said.
"The directors general from the ministry were supposed to meet with the minister on [April 29] when we suddenly heard gunshots," said one ministry employee.
The employee, asking not to be named, said senior officials fled through the ministry's back entrance. "The directors left the meeting room and ran towards the back patio," she said.
Ministry sources said warrants had also been issued for the official who heads the ministry's internal oversight section and the top official responsible for food imports. Saedi said only ministry spokesman Mohammed Hanoun was detained.
Jabbar has not shown up for work at the Grain Board, which reports to the ministry, since then, a ministry source said.
Saedi said some of the charges concerned suspicion of kickbacks or corruption related to expired or dangerous food that was discovered in ministry warehouses in southern Iraq.
Iraq, whose farm sector has suffered years of war, drought and sanctions, is a leading world importer of wheat and rice.
It tenders regularly for hundreds of thousands of tons of grain, often from some of the world's biggest players.
In 2006, wheat imports were banned from Australia when its then-monopoly exporter AWB was found to have paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's government for wheat deals. The Grain Board says it has taken steps to improve its transparency.
The ministry said it had seized poor quality food imports and had blacklisted the companies that supplied them, without giving details. It said previous investigations into the matter had found no wrongdoing and denied any corruption.
"The Trade Ministry has become a remarkable source of corruption and squandering of public funds," said Saedi, a member of the Shi'ite Arab Fadhila party.
He called for the resignation of Sudany, another Shi'ite. "What has happened cannot fool the Iraqi people, who know the true thieves who have stolen public funds are. They know what is happening is politically motivated," the ministry said.