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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Iraqi soldiers patrol an area outside Baquba on May 13.
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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.

"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.

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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.

Salazar, who is at the end of his current deployment here, says the focus of training has shifted over the past year to an emphasis on capability and competence, rather than size.

"When I got here, we were very much focused on how many soldiers can we train in a basic training cycle so we could get a brigade or a battalion into the fight as quickly as possible."

No money to hire more soldiers

Along with improved security, which lessened the need for more combat power, the Iraqi government ran out of money. Salazar says they realized last August that the Iraqi budget could no longer support hiring more soldiers.

An Iraqi government plan aimed at transforming a counterinsurgency force geared at internal security to a larger, better-equipped Army that could defend Iraq's borders by 2020 has been scrapped. The cost of the plan was estimated by Iraq at about $15 billion.

"We weren't really going to reach that, because we were at 267,000 to 270,000, but could only afford to pay for about 253,000, so all of a sudden everything kind of slowed down," he says.

Salazar estimates the Iraqi government instead has between $4 billion and $4.5 billion, "enough to pay the soldiers, sustain the Army and make some limited capital investments and expenditures on equipment."

The goal of a 300,000-strong counterinsurgency force by 2016 has also been derailed.

After putting 80,000 Iraqi soldiers through basic training last year, the figure so far this year has dropped to only about 2,000. Instead, the coalition is helping the Iraqi Army concentrate on retraining existing soldiers in areas where they are still reliant on US forces, such as logistics, intelligence, and engineering.

Most units are at 75 percent strength and the Iraqi Army is looking at consolidating soldiers by eliminating some formations, according to the US general.

The budget crunch has also stalled a key program to recruit former Iraqi Army officers and noncommissioned officers into the new Iraqi force.

"The Iraqi Army advertised and said 'please come and join us again,' and then there are other recruits who went through the recruiting process who are ready to come into the Army," says Salazar. "So we think there were about 40,000 who wanted to come into the Army, but they can't, because they can't afford to pay for them."

He says that figure is believed to include about 14,000 former officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who were ready to rejoin.

Leaders needed

The Iraqi Army has a severe shortage of leadership; fewer than half the officers it needs and only about 60 percent of the NCOs. The program was also a significant step toward reconciliation of Saddam Hussein-era military leaders, many of them Sunni.

Although the US says it does not track the demographics of Iraqi security forces, overall, the non-Kurdish component is still believed to be disproportionately Shiite.

Salazar says he believes that the budget crisis has instilled a change in focus from increasing the size of the force to making the existing force more professional.

"We were focused on growing capacity – we and they together on growing the size of this Army in order to provide security," he says. "I think we've gotten to that point the Army is not going to get any bigger.

"Frankly, I don't think it needs to get any bigger – it needs to get more capable."

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