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Iraqi Army: almost one-quarter lacks minimum qualifications

US Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, in an interview, says that a budget crisis is shifting the focus away from new recruitment, toward better training for existing forces.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2009

Iraqi soldiers patrol an area outside Baquba on May 13.

Ali Yussef/AFP/Newscom

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Baghdad

In a legacy of the US rush to build up Iraqi security forces, almost one-quarter of the Iraqi Army currently fails to meet its own minimum qualifications for soldiers, the Iraqi government is discovering in its first real look at the composition of the Army.

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"They're finding about 24 percent are not qualified based on Army criterion for being in the Army," US Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar says of an ongoing rescreening of Iraq's 253,000 soldiers.

"A very small number of them are overage, a little bit bigger number of them would be medically disqualified, and then somewhere – around 15 percent they're finding – are illiterate," says General Salazar, deputy commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, in an interview.

Salazar says the rescreening, which has surveyed 46,000 soldiers so far, was undertaken because neither the Iraqi Ministry of Defense nor US officials knew who exactly was in the Army.

Although the cash-strapped Iraqi government has had to scrap plans to expand the Army due to budget cuts, it does not plan to automatically fire the unqualified soldiers.

In an effort to keep them employed, the government plans such initiatives as literacy programs for illiterate soldiers and aid to those deemed medically unfit because of remediable problems such as poor vision.

"I can tell you the leadership's view is that, regardless of how they came in, they've all been involved in the fight for quite some time, and they've served their country well," says Salazar, who has been in charge of the coalition effort to set up and train the Iraqi Army over the past year.

He concedes that the high proportion of unqualified soldiers could well be linked to the US rush to build security forces as quickly as possible after 2003.

"That could very well be the case," he says. "When we were standing up the ICDC – the Iraqi national guard – we took what we could get to get combat power out into the fight."

'Cornerstone of the new Iraq'

The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps was the first Iraqi force started by US authorities after they disbanded the old Iraqi Army, throwing hundreds of thousands of former soldiers and officers out of work.

That move is widely considered to have fueled the insurgency in Iraq. US officials called the ICDC, armed with AK-47s but often no bullets, and training in plastic sandals, "the cornerstone of the new Iraq" at the time.

"It wasn't until later that you started to develop the assessment process in which there was testing that took place to bring an Iraqi soldier into the Army, so I think it's a combination of soldiers who slipped through that process along with a combination of soldiers who came through very early on," Salazar says.

Screening for 'ghost soldiers'

The rescreening is also aimed at determining the number of "ghost soldiers" – nonexistent soldiers drawing salaries. The Iraqi government is trying to figure out who exactly is collecting those salaries.

The general says at the other extreme, 8,000 existing soldiers are not being paid because they are not formally on the payroll and will have to be reintegrated.

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