Iraq’s Ghost Battalions


A tidal wave of corruption may ensure the Iraqi army and police will be too few and too poorly armed to replace American and British forces fighting anti-government insurgents. That could frustrate plans in Washington and London to reduce their forces in Iraq.

The Iraqi armed forces are full of “ghost battalions” in which officers pocket the pay of soldiers who never existed or have gone home. “I know of at least one unit which was meant to be 2,200 but the real figure was only 300 men,” said a veteran Iraqi politician and member of parliament, Mahmoud Othman. “The US talks about 150,000 Iraqis in the security forces but I doubt if there are more than 40,000.”

The army and police are poorly armed despite heavy expenditure. “The interim government spent $5.2bn (£2.6bn) on the ministry of defence and ministry of the interior during six months but there is little to show for it,” said a senior Iraqi official who did not want his name published.

He cited the case of more than $300m spent on buying 24 military helicopters and other equipment from Poland. When Iraqi experts examined the helicopters they found them to be 28 years old – and their manufacturer recommended that they be scrapped after 25 years. Iraq is now trying to get its money back.

The corruption started under the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 when Iraqis, often with little experience, were appointed to senior positions in ministries. The Iraqis did not act alone. “The Americans were the partners of the Iraqis in all this corruption,” says Dr Othman. The results of the failure to buy effective arms are visible at every Iraqi police or army checkpoint. The weapons on display are often ageing Kalashnikovs. The supposedly elite police commandos drive about in elderly pick-ups with no armour. The ministry of the interior was recently unable to provide a presidential guard with 50 pistols.

As a result of the lack of weapons, the Iraqi police and army are often less well-armed than the insurgents.

Iraqi soldiers have often turned out to be pathetically vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. “During the past two years, people could make money in Iraq on a scale that would astonish a Colombian drug lord,” said an Iraqi politician who, like many, wanted to remain anonymous. “To protect the amounts of money they made, these people will kill very easily.” Meanwhile, the new Defence Minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, complains he inherited so little infrastructure that he has to bring in tea bags to his office so he can offer tea to visitors.

The Iraqi government hoped it would be able to obtain weapons free from the US but that has turned out to be a frustrating process. An official said: “The Americans don’t trust our soldiers or policemen. They say the arms might fall into the hands of insurgents. But I tell them the insurgents already have these kind of weapons so why should they want some more?”


















Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).