Halting ‘ghost soldiers’ salaries in Iraq
Halting ‘ghost soldiers’ salaries in Iraq
28 Dec 2014
The Iraqi government has stopped payment of tens of millions of dollars in salaries previously disbursed to nonexistent troops, known as “ghost soldiers,” as part of the prime minister’s vow to tackle corruption in the military and regain a foothold in the battle against Islamic State group.
The initiative is part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s plan to rebuild the U.S.-trained military, which crumbled in the face of last summer’s onslaught by Islamic State militants. Al-Abadi has sacked a number of military and interior ministry officials who were appointees of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. It is unclear whether any of the fired officials are among those accused of collecting misappropriated funds.
Al-Abadi has vowed to pursue the sensitive matter “even if it costs me my life.” According to two senior officials, authorities prevented the loss of more than $47 million US in improper military spending in November, mostly from salaries that previously were paid to soldiers who were dead, missing or did not exist and which were pocketed by senior commanders. The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the money was the first of several blocks of funding to be regained by Iraq’s Defense Ministry.
Al-Abadi announced last month that at least 50,000 ghost soldiers existed in four divisions of the military and would be cut from its payroll.
In a television address, he stated, “We have started blowing some big fish out of the water and we’ll go after them until the end.”
The Iraqi military has struggled to recover from its collapse in June when Islamic State captured the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and swept over much of northern Iraq. In the face of the blitz, commanders disappeared. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered. In some cases, soldiers stripped off their uniforms and ran.
The Iraqi army has been reduced to 10 of the 14 divisions it had before the Islamic State offensive in June. The government says the country’s official total military and police forces number one million. However, a senior Iraqi military official said the military consisted of 238,000 fighters as of early December.
A senior U.S. military official said the number was even lower – 125,000, down from 205,000 in January 2014. He said the number of ghost soldiers is far greater than the 50,000 cited by the prime minister, but did not give his own estimate. If all 50,000 soldiers cited by the prime minister received an entry-level salary (about $750 a month), it would add up to at least $450 million in bogus salaries a year.
Iraqi lawmaker Liqaa Wardi said, “The numbers will be much higher if the investigation includes ghost policemen in the Interior Ministry.”
“I think that the efforts exerted by the current government will face resistance by some corrupt army and security officers who have made gains and fortunes due to the corruption system and the ghost soldiers.”
Many have blamed the army’s poor performance on al-Maliki, saying he replaced top officers with inexperienced or incompetent political allies to monopolize power. From 2010 until his resignation in August, al-Maliki had held both the interior and defense portfolios, in part because lawmakers could not agree on nominees for them.
In the case of Mosul, poor training and a lack of loyalty to the central government have been cited as a cause for the military’s collapse there. Once al-Abadi was sworn in and his government approved, it took six weeks to fill the critical posts of interior and defense ministers following a deadlock among rival parliamentary blocs.
The U.S., which began airstrikes on Aug. 8 to reinforce Iraqi and Kurdish forces, is now looking to boost its efforts with additional weapons supplies to the embattled Iraqi military. The Pentagon has made a spending request to Congress of $1.6 billion, focusing on training and arming Iraqi and Kurdish forces. According to a Pentagon document prepared last month, the U.S. is looking to provide an estimated $89.3 million worth of weapons and other equipment to each of the nine Iraqi army brigades.
Part of the drive to target the ghost soldier corruption is financial necessity. Plunging oil prices and soaring costs from Iraq’s war against Islamic State have taken a toll on Iraq’s economy, prompting government spending cuts, including in defense, which constitutes 22 per cent of next year’s proposed budget, according to Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Paul Sullivan, an expert on Middle East affairs at National Defense University in Washington, mentioned, “The regular people and the lower ranks are hurt the most by the corruption of the leaders.”