BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government has identified and stopped payment of tens of millions of dollars in salaries previously disbursed to nonexistent troops, known here 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 the Islamic State group, two senior government officials said.
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 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, al-Abadi vowed to pursue the sensitive matter "even if it costs me my life."
According to the two senior officials, authorities prevented the loss of over $47 million 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 two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media, said the money was the first of several tranches 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 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," he added.
The Iraqi military has struggled to recover from its collapse in June when the Islamic State group 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 since been reduced to 10 of the 14 divisions it had before the Islamic State offensive in June. The government officially says the country's total military and police forces stand at 1 million men. However, a senior Iraqi military official told The Associated Press that the military consisted of 238,000 fighters as of early December.
That figure is overstated, according to a senior U.S. 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 because they were not authorized to speak to media.
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 told the AP. "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 in order to monopolize power. From 2010 until his resignation in August, al-Maliki had also held both the interior and defense portfolios, in part because lawmakers could not agree on nominees for them.
In the case of the fall of Mosul, poor training and a lack of loyalty to the central government have been widely cited as a principle 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 also financial necessity. Plunging oil prices and soaring costs from Iraq's war against the Islamic State group have taken a significant toll on Iraq's economy, prompting government spending cuts, including in defense, which so far constitutes 22 percent 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 martialed 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 writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.