BAGHDAD, Dec. 1 — Jobless men pay $500 bribes to join the police. Families build houses illegally on government land, carwashes steal water from public pipes and nearly everything the government buys or sells can now be found on the black market.
Painkillers for cancer (from the Ministry of Health) cost $80 for a few capsules; electricity meters (from the Ministry of Electricity) go for $200 each and even third-grade textbooks (stolen from the Ministry of Education) must be bought at bookstores for three times what schools once charged.
"Everyone is stealing from the state," said Adel Adel al-Subihawi, a prominent Shiite tribal leader in Sadr City, throwing up his hands in disgust. "It’s a very large meal, and everyone wants to eat."
Corruption and theft are not new to Iraq, and government officials have promised to address the problem. But as Iraqis and American officials assess the effects of this year’s American troop increase, there is a growing sense that, even as security has improved, Iraq has slipped to new depths of lawlessness.
One recent independent analysis ranked Iraq the third most corrupt country in the world. Out of 163 countries surveyed, only Somalia and Myanmar were worse, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that publishes the index annually.
And the extent of the theft is staggering. Some American officials estimate that as much as a third of what they spend on Iraqi contracts and grants ends up unaccounted for or stolen, with a portion going to Shiite or Sunni militias. In addition, Iraq’s top anticorruption official estimated this fall — before resigning and fleeing the country after 31 of his agency’s employees were killed over a three-year period — that $18 billion in Iraqi government money had been lost to various stealing schemes since 2004.
The collective filching undermines Iraq’s ability to provide essential services, a key to sustaining recent security gains, according to American military commanders. It also sows a corrosive distrust of democracy and hinders reconciliation as entrenched groups in the Shiite-led government resist reforms that would cut into reliable cash flows.
In interviews across Baghdad, though, Iraqis said the widespread thieving affected them at least as powerfully on an emotional and moral level. The Koran is very clear on stealing: "God does not love the corrupters," one verse says. And for average Iraqis, those ashamed of the looting that took place immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the current era of anything-goes is particularly crushing because almost no one can avoid its taint.
For many, it is not a question of getting rich. Theft and corruption have become survival tools, creating a spiral of dishonest transactions that leave nearly everyone feeling dirty.
Abu Ali is a 23-year-old Sunni with a soft middle and a common tale. Identifying himself by only a nickname, which means father of Ali, he said that he, his wife, his elderly mother and six relatives fled their home in eastern Baghdad last year after receiving death threats from Shiite militias. First they rushed to Diyala Province, and when that turned violent, they moved back to a safer area of Baghdad — broke and desperate.
A major breadwinner for his family, Abu Ali needed a job. And like many Iraqis, he saw only one employer hiring: the government. A neighbor who was a police officer suggested joining the force. Abu Ali asked how, noting that recruits outnumbered positions. The answer was simple: a $500 bribe.
Abu Ali borrowed the money a few months ago and found his way to a cellphone shop downtown, where, he said, a man in his late 20s welcomed him inside. The man identified himself as a police captain and seemed at ease with the transaction. His wealth sparkled all around.
"He had a silver Mercedes," Abu Ali said. "He was wearing a thick gold chain and a gold watch."
Abu Ali tried to bargain for a lower fee, but failed, handing over the cash and filling out official forms. In return, he said, he received a blue card stamped "Ministry of the Interior," which declared him an accepted member of the police force. The man with the gold chain told him to watch for an announcement in the local paper that listed the names of newly accepted recruits, and to bring the card to his first day of training.
"How do I know I’ll really get the job?" Abu Ali said he asked. "He told me, 'I’ve put in 70 or 80 people already. Don’t worry about it.’"
Five months later, Abu Ali’s name appeared in the newspaper. At the police academy in September, he said, he discovered that most of his class was from Sadr City and that everyone paid $400 to $800 to join.
"There’s not a single person among the 850 people in my class who joined for free," he said.
His commanders, he added, also now collect the salaries of recruits who quit, a payout of more than $100,000 a month. "No one can stop it," Abu Ali said. "Corruption runs from top to bottom."
The details of Abu Ali’s story could not be independently verified, but they fit a pattern of bribes and payroll schemes found in nearly every nook of Iraq’s government, according to government workers, Iraqi lawmakers and some American officials.
Many Iraqis speak from personal experience.
Mr. Subihawi, the Shiite tribal leader in Sadr City, said that when he recently tried to find a job for a young member of his tribe, he was told by local government officials that there was nothing available unless he was willing to pay.
Other Iraqis, in interviews, described similar encounters.
Cash is also often what leads to promotions — with the help of a fake college degree, purchased for about $40 — and theft is no less common. One government worker, who goes by the name Abu Muhammad, said a senior administrator at the ministry where he worked recently sold off computers, laser printers, office furniture and other supplies that appeared to have been paid for with American aid. The official was never caught or prosecuted, he said.
Haider Abu Laith, an engineer at the Ministry of Culture, said that a close friend and fellow engineer at a government agricultural agency recently told him he was being pressured to inflate the cost of equipment purchased abroad so that senior officials could skim the surplus.
He said his friend quit, fearing that he would be killed if he refused.
And at the Ministry of Health’s main warehouse in Baghdad, American troops discovered this summer that two trucks full of medicines and medical equipment had disappeared while several guards on duty — young men in acid-washed jeans, with gel in their hair — said they saw nothing.
Even some Iraqi lawmakers admit that the free-for-all has become too extensive to stop easily. "The size of the corruption exceeds the imagination," said Shatha Munthir Abdul Razzaq, a member of Parliament’s largest Sunni bloc. "Because there are no tough laws, no penalties for those who steal."
Stuart W. Bowen Jr., who runs the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki actually undercut anticorruption efforts this year by requiring that investigators get permission from his office before pursuing ministers or former ministers on corruption charges.
Mr. Maliki has also not rescinded a law, opposed by the Americans, that lets ministers exempt their employees from investigation. "Those two legal positions within the fledgling Iraqi government are incompatible with democracy," Mr. Bowen said in an interview. "My concerns about the corruption problem have risen."
Ali al-Dabbagh, the prime minister’s spokesman, has acknowledged that corruption is a problem and pledged to address it. And at some gas stations, especially where American troops have concentrated their efforts, Iraqis report fewer demands for the bribes that once tripled or quadrupled the price of gas.
But for a large number of people, survival still depends on taking what they can, when they can. Some estimates put unemployment at 40 percent. For many Iraqis, minor theft seems justified because others take so much and because daily life in Iraq still feels precarious — a crust of calm resting on currents of sectarianism, poverty and anger.
Baghdad, in particular, is still marked by desperation, with more women begging at intersections and with many Iraqis barely getting by, even with a little cheating.
These are people like Sattar Alwan, 41, a taxi driver with a dark mustache who lives with nearly a dozen relatives in a makeshift, illegal house on government land in eastern Baghdad. He said his family built the squat brick structure because gunmen pushed them out of their own home and they had nowhere else to go.
Or Abbas Wadi Kadhim, 42, who uses a raspy air compressor to extract city water from broken pipes so he can earn money washing cars.
Mr. Kadhim acknowledges that he does not pay for the water, nor does he pay rent at the abandoned government building a few hundred yards away, where he often sleeps so he can be ready when customers arrive at 7 a.m.
He figures his government owes him. He was imprisoned by Mr. Hussein’s government and disabled in the Iran-Iraq war. His left forearm is as thin as a child’s, and crooked at the wrist.
"I have six kids," he said, spraying down a silver sedan last week, "and all I get is 150,000 Iraqi dinar," about $120 a month in disability payments. "It’s not enough."
Mr. Kadhim said he was from Sadr City, a sprawling public housing project dominated by the Mahdi Army, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite militia. He suggested that he could make more money if he were less religious.
"The forbidden work is far away from us, as far away as the seven seas," he said, looking east toward his old neighborhood.
He sounded proud. He spends long hours scrubbing cars for $4 each in an empty lot with a clear view of Baghdad’s main soccer stadium. His customers praise him for being thorough. But like many Iraqis who have made a choice to bend the rules, he seems still unsure of his moral footing: a little bit ashamed, a touch defensive.
"This job is better for us than doing things that are forbidden," he said, his voice getting louder. "It’s better than stealing or using people."
"The more honest the job is and the harder we work, the better."
Reporting was contributed by Anwar J. Ali, Diana Oliva Cave, Hosham Hussein, Qais Mizher and Abeer Mohammad..