The recently installed Iraqi prime minister removed 36 military commanders in a sweeping shake-up on Wednesday, in his first public attempt to put his mark on the Iraqi security forces battling to retake territory from Islamic State militants.
Despite receiving more than $25 billion in American training and equipment over the past 10 years, the Iraqi military buckled, and thousands of troops fled, in the face of the Islamic State’s rapid advance across Iraq this summer. Only half the remaining units are considered fit to fight, according to American officials.
But even as Iraqi and American officials are racing to expand the security forces and turn their losses around, they are having to struggle with a widespread perception of the Iraqi Army as a hopelessly corrupt and incompetent institution.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement late Wednesday that he was removing the 36 commanders and installing 18 others to promote “professionalism” and “combat corruption.”
The names were not disclosed, but Iraqis briefed on the plan said those replaced included the chief of ground forces, the military chief of staff and the commander of operations in Anbar Province — one of the crucial areas overrun by the Islamic State.
Mr. Abadi was elected three months ago, with strong American backing, on a pledge to build a more inclusive and responsive government after the divisive eight-year rule of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
Mr. Maliki is a senior leader of a political faction based in the Shiite Muslim majority, and he is widely blamed by many Iraqis and the White House for cronyism, nepotism and police abuses that alienated the Sunni Muslim population, opening doors to the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. As prime minister, he was a strongman who kept tight control of the security services, and he stacked the military’s top ranks with loyalists rather than the most competent officers, contributing to the erosion of the military’s fighting ability.
That became the focus of special attention here this week after Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric blamed corruption in the military for the Islamic State’s advance. The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in a statement on Friday that corruption had led directly to the current “security deterioration.”
“The different military positions should be occupied by those who are professional, patriotic, faithful, courageous and not affected in doing their duties by personal and financial influences,” he said, adding, “even the smallest corruption is big.”
But whatever the shake-up may do to clean house, Mr. Abadi is also putting his own stamp on the security forces. He faces continuing challenges to his authority from Mr. Maliki, who is now a vice president and still a power broker in State of Law, the Shiite political bloc both men are a part of. Replacing the Maliki loyalists in the military could help Mr. Abadi consolidate his own power.
Whether Mr. Abadi is merely installing his own loyalists remains to be seen when the names are disclosed. He announced the changes under his own name instead of that of his newly approved defense minister, Khalid al-Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker and an engineer in the Iraqi Air Force for 18 years.
Mr. Abadi also appears to have ignored a constitutional requirement for parliamentary approval of top generals, just as Mr. Maliki did for eight years, said Michael Knights, an Iraq researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is exactly what was done under the previous government,” he said.
Still, Mr. Knights said that the pressures of the current fight against the Islamic State might help justify the direct appointments. He also said that the current heavy involvement of the American military in fighting the Islamic State was likely to mean close oversight of the process, favoring younger and more competent commanders.
“There is a good chance that they got a capable bunch,” Mr. Knights said.