The training camp in Numaniyah used to be a jewel. Then the Americans left, and in a development that augurs poorly for the nation's future, the Iraqis left in power sold anything that moved.
Iraqi army base mired in corruption
WASIT, IRAQ // Iraqi troops once dreamed of being assigned to the army training base in Numaniyah.
Electricity ran 24 hours a day, the showers were hot, the food good and the accommodation clean.
One of the leading military training centres in the country, the base was significantly upgraded in 2004 at a cost of US$165 million (Dh606m). Situated 150km south-east of Baghdad, it was an example of the new Iraqi army - professional and well equipped. It was home to the Iraqi Intervention Force, the army's counterinsurgency wing and specialist police training units.
However, according to rank-and-file soldiers stationed at the camp in Wasit province, it is now being run into the ground by corrupt officers who are selling everything from generators to soldiers' food and clothes.
In a series of interviews, Iraqi troops described a base and an army in disarray. While US and Iraqi officials say the nation's forces continue to improve, soldiers at Numaniyah Training Centre insist the opposite is happening, with morale plummeting as the army deteriorates and corruption spreads.
"When I first came here in 2006, the situation was amazing, the facilities were the best," said a soldier who asked to be named only as Abu Khalid. He and other Iraqi military personnel who spoke did so on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
"The showers were clean, the electricity always on, the health clinic was good and the officers were very professional and respectful," he said. "We had three meals a day, a proper breakfast, meat at lunch and a full dinner."
That all began to change with the withdrawal of US troops from the base in June. US forces, once stationed full-time at the camp, departed at the end of March. They left behind more than $1 million in equipment, such as computers and air conditioners. Within two months, conditions were grim, according to Iraqi troops.
Food became so scarce that Iraqi soldiers say they have to buy their own supplies to supplement the soup and stale bread they are given. Meat is a rarity and fruit, once readily available, is no longer on the menu. Iraqi soldiers also complain they are increasingly having to buy their own military clothing.
"Since the Americans took their hands off the base, things got bad," said Abu Khalid. "The officers have sold off all the large power generators that supplied the electricity. They were huge generators, they've gone, sold on the black market. They only left the small generators that run the power in the officers quarters, the rest are gone. We have none in our quarters."
Washington has been handing over military operations to Iraqis since it began to withdraw troops in mid-August. Since then, the US army has had only 50,000 soldiers in Iraq and they handle only training and advisory duties. That means the US has far less day-to-day control over the Iraqi military. In response to an e-mailed query about the alleged corruption on Numaniyah base, the US military said the camp was "completely in Iraqi hands" and its role had been reduced to a "limited advisory capacity" since June.
In its most recent report to Congress, submitted in March, the US department of defence praised Iraqi army trainers. It said training centre staff had "expanded their ability to manage and execute operations" and that there were "improving trends and progress". It did, however, express reservations about resource management, saying cumbersome logistics were creating problems. It made no mention of corruption.
In July, Congress approved a $1 billion emergency aid package to the Iraqi government, specifically to train and equip its military and police forces. The money was approved despite US auditors' reservations about more than $50bn in unaccounted for Iraqi government money. The Iraqi defence ministry failed to respond to repeated requests for information about the Numaniyah base.
Iraqi soldiers assigned to Numaniyah said the Americans had been fastidious about maintenance. Now, caretakers and cleaning staff have been sacked, leaving the soldiers to patch up plumbing and housing.
"There used to be hot showers, now there are really no showers," Abu Khalid said. "The officers sacked the cleaning staff so they can claim their salaries. We fix the pipes when there are problems or blockages. We improvise to keep the water running."
A staff sergeant described the situation as "miserable" and said morale was terrible. "The commanders are making thousands of dollars a day selling off food and equipment," he said. "I'm 100 per cent sure that if Iraq were attacked, none of these soldiers would follow the officers into combat."
The staff sergeant, who like many Iraqi soldiers served in Saddam Hussein's army, said conditions today were similar to those in the ramshackle pre-2003 Iraqi military.
"Saddam had the same problem," he said. "When the country was attacked, he could not count on the army. He had a saying that if he bought a camel for every Iraqi soldier, they would only get the tail because the officers would steal the rest. Well, today the soldiers are not even getting the camel's tail."
The Iraqi government, which has spent billions of dollars on the armed forces, has a system to control corruption, with inspectors sent out to ensure bases are up to standards. Those inspections are failing, according to soldiers at Numaniyah.
"If we complain to the inspectors," said Abu Khalid, "we'll be fired and none of us can afford for that to happen. The equipment from the government is being stolen, our shoes and socks are even being sold, but we cannot say anything."
He said the American authorities had watched everyone. If a soldier had problems, they could tell the Americans. "The Iraqi officers were afraid of the Americans. Now there are no Americans. Everyone is corrupt. No one is watching."
The staff sergeant said he was ordered by officers to tell inspectors that "all is well".
"The Americans were watching the officers and they would always privately ask me and my soldiers - the lower ranks - what the problems were," he said. "We could tell the Americans the truth. Now, it's miserable."
Under the US, two canteens each capable of feeding 3,000 men were built on Numaniyah. An Iraqi cook working in the kitchens since shortly after the base reopened in 2004, described systematic corruption that had sprung up since US forces left. He said government contracts with food suppliers were honoured and the companies delivered the full inventory of goods. But, once the trucks arrived, the "commanders are on the phone immediately to the black market traders who come straight away with their own trucks take it all away again".
"I used to make three meals a day when the Americans were here supervising the kitchen," he recalled. "The Iraqi soldiers were properly fed, there was milk, cheese, eggs, hot bread, beans, meat, rice, bananas and apples. Now everything is sold off except the soup, rice and old bread".
The cook said the soldiers were not getting sufficient food, and that many spend their own money on food.
Health services have similarly suffered, according to the staff sergeant. He said five of his soldiers had recently had stomach ailments and, because base health services were now non-existent, they went to the local hospital for treatment, paying for it themselves. Previously, US and Iraqi medical staff and manned the clinic.
Under their contracts, Iraqi soldiers are entitled to health care supplied by the ministry of defence.
The staff sergeant also said that accommodation had fallen into such disrepair that many soldiers preferred to sleep outside,
The troops said they did not hold the government directly responsible. "We know the government is buying a lot of equipment, it's just that we don't see any of it. I want the officials to know what is going on," said Abu Khalid.
"I've got no loyalty to the army, to these officers. They don't respect us. They are stealing food from us. It's like it was under Saddam. They eat well, we get old bread and soup so thin it's like yellow water.
"Saddam didn't respect the army and in the end it didn't respect him. That is happening again now".
Phil Sands reported from Damascus