A corruption scandal has rocked the Iraqi army after it was found to have been paying wages to tens of thousands of non-existent soldiers. This also explains its defeats at the hands of the “Islamic State.”
The Iraqi army did not cut a good figure in June 2014. In the battle for the city of Mosul, 60,000 soldiers surrendered to around 1,200 fighters of the terrorist group “Islamic State” with no significant resistance. The militiamen simply stormed in with their ultra-modern equipment and put the Iraqi soldiers to flight.
Not only was this a disastrous military defeat for the Iraqi army, it was also a terrible loss of face. The soldiers had lost against an opponent that was numerically far inferior.
That, at least, was how it seemed until now. But at the weekend the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi made a statement in the Iraqi parliament that may put the battle for Mosul in a different light. Did the regular Iraqi soldiers really outnumber the soldiers of the militia so heavily? Or were there in fact far fewer of them than previously thought?
The figures presented by al-Abadi give reason for such suspicion. They state that the defense ministry has around 50,000 fighters on its list who only exist on paper. In an army that is officially 170,000 strong, this would mean that almost a third are “phantom soldiers” – the Iraqi Arabic term for soldiers whose names are made up, or who have already died but continue to receive a salary.
The sums of money fraudulently obtained in this way are enormous. The minimum salary of an ordinary recruit in the Iraqi military is around 600 US dollars at the start of his service, increasing proportionally for higher ranks. When pay rises are also taken into account, the amounts wrongfully transferred come to a total of at least 380 million dollars.
Hamid al-Mutlaq, an Iraqi politician and member of the Iraqi defense committee, told the Washington Post that the total could in fact be three times that amount. He believed it quite possible that other lists of non-existent soldiers might come to light. "The Iraqi coffers have been plundered," he said. The majority of the beneficiaries were, it seems, Iraqi officers, who entered far more names on their papers than they actually had in their ranks.
Those coffers were to a large extent filled by American taxpayers. Between the start of the US invasion in 2003 and the American troop withdrawal in 2011 the United States invested around 20 billion dollars equipping and training the Iraqi army. Washington intended to transfer another 1.2 billion US dollars next year.
Al-Maliki accused of corruption
"The phantom soldiers were one of the reasons for the shocking collapse of the Iraqi army in the fight against Islamic State," the Iraqi politician Mohamed Othman al-Khalidi explained in conversation with the Internet magazine Al Monitor.
Accusations of corruption were made repeatedly during former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's period in office, which ended in August 2014 – not only against the Iraqi military, but also against the government. Furthermore, Al-Maliki's cabinet was accused of pursuing biased policies that benefited Iraqi Shiites – and, in doing so, driving the Sunni population into the arms of "Islamic State," a Sunni organization.
Weak fighting spirit
"If the [al-Maliki] government is either acutely sectarian or acutely corrupt or both, so that large swaths of the population feel disenfranchised and in fact humiliated by their own government, no amount of local security forces are really going to make up for that deficit," said US security adviser Sarah Chaynes of the American internet magazine Globalsecurity.
Al-Maliki's policies also clearly undermined the morale of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army. Stephen Zunes, a scholar of Middle Eastern politics at the University of San Francisco, told Globalsecurity: "You can arm and train the local government armed forces all you want, but the question is: Are they willing to fight and die for the government? And unfortunately, the Maliki government has alienated so many people in the country that they don't really seem to have the popular support where enough soldiers are willing to risk their lives."
This latest corruption scandal makes very clear that what the Iraqi army lacks most is not weapons but fighting morale. Reviving this in his troops is one of the most urgent tasks Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has to address.