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How ghost soldiers are bleeding the Iraqi army of guns and money
Times Online (UK)
Ned Parker in Fallujah
January 19, 2007

Widespread corruption has robbed the Iraqi Armed Forces of arms, money and troops, a Times investigation has discovered.

Army numbers are swelled with "ghost soldiers" who appear on rosters but do not exist. A brigade commander was removed this month for selling weapons and fuel on the black market and officials in the Ministry of Defence support terrorism, according to one lieutenant-colonel.

"Corruption is like termites. They eat from within and affect the morale of the soldiers," Lieutenant-General Nasier al-Abadi, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces, who pledged to eradicate corruption, told The Times.

The picture throws into stark relief the appeal for more weapons from the Iraqi Prime Minister. Nouri al-Maliki used an interview with The Times on Wednesday to chide the US for failing to give his forces enough weapons. The view from the ground suggests that there are no guarantees that such equipment would reach frontline troops, and underlines US concerns that they could end up in the hands of insurgents and militias.

In the insurgent haven of Fallujah, Lieutenant-Colonel Tahsen Jabour Ahmed Sabih worries as much about corrupt military officials as he does about al-Qaeda. He wonders why he could not get enough weapons, vehicles or pay for his men.

Then there are the "ghost soldiers". Colonel Sabih knows that someone is receiving the fictitious troops' salaries, but can do nothing about it. "Basically, the Ministry of Defence is weak. These people who work in MoD, some of them support terrorism. This doesn't mean only to kill innocent people . . . they work for their personal benefit," he said. "One hundred per cent, the problem in the MoD is corruption." US Marine officers in Fallujah were even more blunt in describing how dirty practices were hindering the Iraqi Army. They succeeded in ousting Fallujah's brigade commander, General Khalid Juad Khadim, who had enjoyed political protection inside the ministry.

General Khadim, who is suspected of links to Shia militias, was accused of selling off fuel and weapons on the black market in Baghdad, said Lieutenant-Colonel James Teeples, who advised the Iraqi Army in Fallujah. "He likes to take pay from his soldiers," Colonel Teeples said. "He sells weapons on the black market in Baghdad. He steals gasoline the coalition provides for the brigade."

He expressed most concern over the "ghost soldiers". "The brigade, for instance, will submit a pay roster to the MoD every month," he said. "Let's say it has 2,000 names; 1,700 names may actually exist. What happens to the money for the other 300 people? It gets divided among various people, various key personnel in the brigade, especially the brigade general."

Colonel Sabih wonders how he can ever win the confidence of Fallujah residents when his Army is too weak to challenge groups such as al-Qaeda.

"On their own, they [Fallujah residents] would trust the Army, but by force, they are obliged to trust the insurgents."

Colonel Teeples said that corruption extended well beyond Fallujah's 2nd Brigade of the First Army Division. "I know there are problems with other division commanders and I know there are problems with folks up at the Ministry of Defence," he said. "So it's not simply just this one brigade commander. If it were an isolated instance like that, they [the army] would probably be doing much better in Iraq than they currently are."

General al-Abadi acknowledged that corruption had infected the Defence Ministry, but said that moves were afoot to fix the problem. Early last year the ministry had formed a committee to root out the problem of non-existent soldiers. A paymaster officer was assigned to every army unit to create greater accountability, but it is still impossible to track the total number of active soldiers.

A second inspector-general's office was established three months ago to look out for improprieties within the armed forces, General al-Abadi said. And this year, the Defence Ministry is establishing a support command division and a computerised accounting system to crack down on the flow of weapons, fuel and other supplies to the black market.

General al-Abadi said that the demands of fighting the insurgency had hampered the battle against corruption. "Some of these you can turn a blind eye to because of the operations taking place, but now no more. It is time to root out these guys."

Cost of corruption

  • 325,000 Iraqi security personnel have been trained and are operational, 137,000 are soldiers, the rest police
  • More than 14,000 guns paid for by the US are unaccounted for
  • An Iraqi Government report into police corruption concluded that officers made money through kidnappings and forgery, and passed information to insurgents
  • $4 billion a year is lost to corruption in Iraq, according to auditors — including $100m of oil smuggling that helps to fund the insurgency
  • One former police chief is said to have run a personal militia of 1,400 troops

Source: Brookings Institution, agencies

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