Although the Iraqi government’s 50,000 "ghost soldiers" have been exposed — forcing the government to deal with corruption in the military — Iraq is still playing fast and loose by using soldiers who are on duty for questionable assignments.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, part of the military has been transformed into an ever-growing regiment of bodyguards. The bodyguards protecting government officials are among the most despised among common citizens. Blocking the streets with their long convoys or firing in the air to clear crowds with seemingly no reason is a daily frustration. Few really know how many are assigned to these security roles, and how much money they are costing the Iraqi state.
“Bodyguards reflect the personality of the official they protect. Since we have so many bad officials, their bodyguards are worse,” said Ahmed Hussein, a 35-year old computer technician from Baghdad.
The United States has spent $26 billion over the last decade on arming and training Iraqi security forces, including those now in bodyguard posts. Yet, Iraq’s security forces collapsed and lost one third of Iraq to ISIS in June. Still, the U.S. just approved another $5 billion in training, some of which will inevitably be spent on unnecessary protection for minor bureaucrats at the expense of an army desperately in need of proper training. Once again, corruption, mismanagement and waste has characterized Iraqi security forces.
Bodyguards’ Second Job: Kidnapping
Over the last few weeks, Baghdad was hit by a series of kidnappings, with demands for hefty ransoms. This continues an epidemic that has spread since the 2003 war. But while kidnappings usually takes place for sectarian reasons or in unsafe neighborhoods, it is now happening in some of Baghdad’s most secured areas.
In Northwestern and Northeastern Baghdad, several notable physicians and businessmen were recently kidnapped and released after paying ransom. The Iraqi government, while struggling to cope with the war against ISIS, has been forced to redirect military assets and establish a special unit to arrest members of kidnapping gangs.
After the increase in cases of kidnapping, a cell [unit] was formed…. All the kidnapping gangs will be investigated,” said Lieutenant General Abdul Ameer al-Shamari, the commander of Baghdad operations, in a press conference in Baghdad about two weeks ago.
So far, the anti-kidnapping forces have been successful. Several gangs were dismantled and their members were arrested. To reassure an anxious public, five of the gangs confessed their crimes on camera and the video of their confession was played in a press conference in Baghdad.
One leader testified, “Our first kidnapping operation was in Zyouna. It was a cellophane shop. We took $20,000 and we released the guy. The second kidnapping operation was in the Jamila neighborhood. He was a businessman. We took $40,000 for his release. The third one was in al-Shaab neighborhood where we were arrested….”
While the testimony was meant to reassure citizens, the process gave way when news came suggesting that some of those crimes were by bodyguards of influential government officials.
Personal bodyguards have never had a good record in Iraq. One glaring example is the July 2009 bank robbery in Baghdad that claimed the lives of eight bank guards. Bodyguards of the then Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, now Minister of Finance, were involved in the robbery.
In December 2011, former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi fled Iraq to Turkey to avoid being arrested for murder. Later his bodyguards confessed on TV of their roles in killing judges and planting bombs. In March, an officer working as former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s bodyguard killed the Baghdad bureau chief of Radio Free Europe.
Battalions of Bodyguards
While these incidents were covered extensively by the media, many don’t know the real size of the veritable army of bodyguards in Iraq. As a former Iraqi government official and a journalist, I have worked with several ranking Iraqi officials. The Iraqi president and his vice presidents are protected by the presidential brigade, which assigns a full army battalion of 1,000 soldiers to each of them. A second brigade was established in the last few years just in case there would be more than two vice presidents at a time, which is the case now. I was embedded several times with former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi as a journalist, and I counted no less than 60 vehicles accompanying him.
The prime minister is protected by yet another brigade of 3,000 or more soldiers. The Speaker of the Parliament is protected by a battalion. A recent video showed the convoy of the current Iraqi Speaker of Parliament while visiting the city of Najaf. By the time the camera stopped filming, 50 vehicles had passed. More arrived off camera. Some Iraqi NGO activists have demanded that he list his convoy with the Guinness Book of World Records.
The ministers of defense and interior are also each protected by a battalion with no less than 60 vehicles protecting them. Even lower-ranking ministers are protected by about 60 bodyguards, moving with an average of 15 vehicles. Members of Parliament typically have half of this.
Yet because Iraq has 328 members of Parliament, even this group requires the size of an army division, or no less than 10,000 soldiers. Another division is protecting five people: the president and his vice president and the prime minister. Including the governors of Iraqi provinces – who are protected by as many bodyguards as ministers, if not more — and the deputy ministers, and the coddled upper-division staff of the ministries and local offices, the numbers for these protection details are astronomical.
Many bodyguards are hired simply because they are relatives of the official they are protecting. They are all part of the staff of the Defense and Interior Ministries. Most of the government officials also have expensive armored cars as well. The only reasonable estimate for personal protection for Iraqi government officials was last week’s statement by Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji that the cost of protecting government officials is $1 billion.
While Iraq is struggling to fund its war with ISIS after a sharp drop in oil prices – Iraq’s main source of income – from $100 per barrel to $60 per barrel, perhaps it is time for professional thugs to go… or at a minimum, turn a better profit.
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