Iraq stops salaries to ‘ghost soldiers’

Authorities prevented the loss of over US$47 million (Dh173m) of improper military spending in November, mostly from salaries that were previously paid to soldiers who are dead, missing or did not exist and which were pocketed by senior commanders, according to senior government officials.

BAGHDAD // Iraq’s “ghost soldiers” have been identified and tens of millions of dollars in salaries previously disbursed to these non-existent troops have been stopped.

The initiative is part of Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s vow to tackle corruption in the military as he seeks to rebuild the US-trained military which crumbled in the face of the onslaught by ISIL militants.

Mr Al Abadi recently purged the military and interior ministry from a number of senior officials who were appointees of his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki. While it is unclear whether any of the sacked officials are among those accused of collecting misappropriated funds, Mr Al Abadi pledged to pursue the sensitive matter “even if it costs me my life.”

According to two senior government officials, authorities prevented the loss of over US$47 million (Dh173m) of improper military spending in November, mostly from salaries that were previously paid to soldiers who are dead, missing or did not exist and which were pocketed by senior commanders. The officials said the money was the first of several tranches of funding to be regained by Iraq’s defence ministry.

Mr Al Abadi announced last month that at least 50,000 ghost soldiers existed in four different divisions of the military and would be cut from its payroll.

“We were paying salaries while we lack the money,” he said in a televised address.

“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 ISIL captured the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and swept over much of northern Iraq. The Iraqi army has since been reduced to 10 of the 14 divisions it had before the ISIL offensive. The government officially says the country’s total military and police forces stand at 1 million men. However, a senior Iraqi military official said that the military consisted of 238,000 fighters as of early December.

That figure is overstated, according to a senior US military official, who said Iraqi military strength stands, generously, at 125,000 – down from 205,000 in January 2014. He believes the number of ghost soldiers is far greater than the 50,000 cited by the prime minister, but did not give his own estimate. Both military officials also spoke on condition of anonymity.

If all 50,000 soldiers cited by the prime minister received an entry-level salary [about $750 per month], it would add up to at least $450 million in bogus salaries per year.

“The numbers will be much higher if the investigation includes ghost policemen in the interior ministry,” Iraqi lawmaker Liqaa Wardi said.

“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 Mr Al Maliki, saying he replaced top officers with inexperienced or incompetent political allies in order to monopolise power.

Part of the drive to target the ghost soldier corruption is also financial necessity. Plunging oil prices and soaring costs from Iraq’s war against ISIL have taken a significant toll on Iraq’s economy, prompting government spending cuts, including in defence, which so far constitutes 22 per cent of next year’s proposed budget, according to finance minister Hoshyar Zebari.

“Any senior military official involved in such obvious corrosive corruption should be court martialled and tossed in jail – especially in a perilous environment such as that which Iraq is facing,” said Paul Sullivan, an expert on Middle East affairs at National Defense University in Washington. “The regular people and the lower ranks are hurt the most by the corruption of the leaders.”

* Associated Press

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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