One Iraqi general is known as “chicken guy” because of his reputation for selling his soldiers’ poultry provisions. Another is “arak guy,” for his habit of enjoying that anise-flavored liquor on the job. A third is named after Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bills, “Gen. Deftar,” and is infamous for selling officer commissions.
They are just a few of the faces of the entrenched corruption of the Iraqi security forces, according to Iraqi officers and lawmakers as well as U.S. officials.
The Iraqi military and police forces had been so thoroughly pillaged by their own corrupt leadership that they all but collapsed this spring in the face of the advancing militants of the Islamic State — despite roughly $25 billion worth of U.S. training and equipment over the past 10 years and far more from the Iraqi treasury.
Now the pattern of corruption and patronage in the Iraqi government forces threatens to undermine a new U.S.-led effort to drive out the extremists, even as President Barack Obama is doubling to 3,000 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.
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The United States has insisted that the Iraqi military act as the conduit for any new aid and armaments being supplied for a counteroffensive, including money and weapons intended for tribal fighters willing to push out the Islamic State. In its 2015 budget, the Pentagon has requested $1.3 billion to provide weapons for the government forces and $24.1 million intended for the tribes.
But some of the weaponry recently supplied by the army has already ended up on the black market and in the hands of Islamic State fighters, according to Iraqi officers and lawmakers.
U.S. officials directed questions to the Iraqi government.
“I told the Americans, don’t give any weapons through the army — not even one piece — because corruption is everywhere, and you will not see any of it,” said Col. Shaaban al-Obeidi of the internal security forces and a Sunni tribal leader in Anbar province. “Our people will steal it.”
Iraqi officers and lawmakers, some speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized, say that army and police payrolls are still wildly inflated by “ghost soldiers,” either conjured entirely by a superior officer or just splitting a paycheck with a patron instead of showing up for work.
And Iraqi soldiers often charge that they have been furnished with partial supplies and cheaply made weapons because their commanders took kickbacks or skimmed off the savings.
“If each soldier is supposed to get 100 bullets, he will only get 50, and the officer will take and sell the rest,” Shaaban said.
As he showed a reporter the Austrian-made Glock handgun he obtained from U.S. forces years ago, he added: “If the Iraqi army had supplied this, the barrel would explode in two rounds.”
As the United States invests in battling the Islamic State, the waste and graft within the Iraqi forces may play a critical role in the outcome, according to current Iraqi officials and U.S. officers with experience here.
Many Sunni tribal leaders, deeply mistrustful of the Shiite-dominated military, are urging the U.S. to provide salaries and weapons directly to the tribes, much as it did during the so-called Awakening movement against al-Qaida in Iraq seven years before.
But officials of the Shiite-dominated government say any U.S. attempts to work directly with the tribes would violate Iraqi sovereignty and exacerbate sectarian divisions.
U.S. officials say working with the tribes, and military corruption, is beyond the scope of their mission. “Reducing corruption is not part of the advisers’ role,” said one U.S. official involved in the effort, “and there is no reason to believe that advisers’ presence will reduce corruption.”
Veterans of past U.S. operations in Iraq say that by working closely with Iraqi battalions, the advisers could help reduce the military’s troubles with kickbacks, inflated payrolls and other graft. But it is unclear how large a deployment that would require. Obama recently authorized doubling the number of troops in Iraq.
To increase accountability, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is trying to require that each tribal fighter sign for the serial number of any new weapon, said his spokesman, Rafid Jaboori. But Iraq military officers would implement those procedures.
Al-Abadi recently purged 36 top officers he accused of corruption and unprofessionalism. He was also consolidating his power: All were officers considered personally loyal to his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki. Like al-Maliki, al-Abadi named his own new generals in violation of the constitution, instead of getting the required parliamentary approval.
Among those removed was Lt. Gen. Rashid Fleih, the chief of operations in Anbar province, known as “chicken guy.” Gen. Sabah al-Fatlawi, known as “the arak guy” and the brother of a close al-Maliki ally, was removed as military chief for the city of Samarra. Gen. Hatem al-Magsusi, a chief of military intelligence known for publicizing terrorism cases against al-Maliki’s political rivals, was dismissed as well.
Gen. Mahdi al-Gharawi, also known as “Deftar,” was removed shortly after the humiliating rout of his forces from Mosul in June. He had been the subject of long-standing charges of torture by Human Rights Watch.
None of the allegations against the generals has been proved in a court, and all four declined to comment or could not be reached.
But Iraqi lawmakers say part of the military’s problem is that very few, if any, charges have been brought against any Iraqi officer over the last 11 years, even as the perception of corruption has grown.
The government’s corruption watchdog reported to the prime minister, and this arrangement became known as a political tool to punish the prime minister’s enemies. As a result, the only measure of the corruption is the amount of money wasted without discernible result.
“Corruption in the military is real terrorism,” said Salah Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker who sits on Parliament’s defense committee, “and it is even more dangerous.”
No one pretends the corruption is limited to a few dozen generals. “Only a few of the top officers have no corruption,” said Amer Tau’ma, a lawmaker in the dominant Shiite bloc who is also on the defense committee.
Buying officer titles, shaking down civilians and siphoning money from inflated payrolls are all “a continuous phenomenon,” said Talal al-Zubai, a lawmaker from a Sunni party who sits on the government-ethics committee.
Dismissing the generals was insufficient, he argued.
“They should be executed. They destroyed Iraq,” he said. “For the American advisers, there is no chance their mission will succeed with lying Iraqi commanders.”
U.S. military officers insist that they left the Iraqi army in relatively good form when they began to withdraw in 2009. Their close observation during the five previous years had helped keep a lid on the graft, they said.
“You could clean up the ‘ghost soldier’ problem,” said Joel Rayburn, an Army colonel who worked closely with the Iraqi military and now teaches at the National Defense University. “If an Iraqi brigade or regiment is supposed to have 700 guys but there are only 250, that is easy to notice.”
The police force was different. “It was much harder to get a handle on the inflated numbers,” he said, “where you have fake names, or people who never came to work and split their salaries with whoever had gotten them hired.”
Then, as the United States began reducing its numbers of troops in Iraq in 2009, al-Maliki began to reach deep into the Iraqi ranks to personally direct officer appointments and to dispense political patronage.
“As Maliki and his allies exerted greater and greater control of the Iraqi armed forces, they really milked it for the money that was going into it,” Rayburn said, adding that they would say, “ ‘You want a command or you want your son to go to the military academy? Well, here is how much it is going to cost.’ ” Iraqi lawmakers say connections granted impunity.
“If you want to punish an officer for what he stole, you find he has political protection within the government and you can’t do anything to get him,” said Tau’ma, of Parliament’s defense committee. “It has a demoralizing effect when the soldier who takes all the risk against the Islamic State — and sometimes doesn’t get enough support for months — sees his commander taking all the money.”