BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retired two senior generals on Tuesday as part of an overhaul of the country’s armed forces, which collapsed this summer in the face of Islamic State insurgents who seized wide areas of northern and western Iraq.
The two commanders had been close allies of Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim widely blamed for sectarian rule that alienated Iraqi Sunni Muslims and abetted the rise of the ultra-radical Sunni Islamic State insurgency.
Sunni militants have overrun about a third of northern and western Iraq as well as neighboring eastern Syria, massacring non-Sunni prisoners and proclaiming a caliphate that erases national borders and is run on medieval Islamic precepts. Citing a grave international security threat, the United States began bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq in August, and on Tuesday, assisted by Arab allies, it extended the air war to IS positions in Syria.
Abadi’s decision to remove the two generals followed a Islamic State assault on an Iraqi army base in Saqlawiya in western Anbar province on the weekend. A senior Iraqi security official said the attack left 400 to 600 soldiers dead or captured.
State television announced that General Abboud Qanbar, the defense ministry’s acting secretary-general, and General Ali Ghaidan, the former ground commander of the armed forces, had been put on pension.
“Both men have been transferred to retirement. They are done,” the senior security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Qanbar and Ghaidan were among Iraq’s top operational commanders.
Ghaidan was retired earlier this summer after Islamic State took control of northern Iraq’s biggest city Mosul in June, but was then quietly restored to duty. Ghaidan and Qanbar had until Tuesday managed to survive their role in the military’s disastrous summer losses to Islamic State.
Abadi’s media office also announced that changes were being made to the office of commander in chief, the disputed military bureau created by Maliki. The security official said he expected the bureau’s top officers to be dismissed or reassigned.
State television said the office of commander in chief was being abolished, but Abadi’s office said only that an overhaul was under way. “It’s clear that it’s not going to be on the same level. The policy in general, they don’t want it anymore,” said an aide to Abadi.
Maliki used the office of commander in chief to personally direct troop movements and appoint commanders. It became synonymous with Maliki’s hands-on-style that critics condemned as authoritarian, circumventing democratic accountability.
Abadi, also a Shi’ite although seen as more conciliatory than Maliki, has pledged reforms across the military after Islamic State’s seizure of nearly all Sunni regions, comprising around one-third of Iraq, since the start of this year.
In violence Tuesday, a car bomb killed 18 people and wounded 40 others in Sadr City, a Shi’ite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, police said.
Reporting by Ned Parker; Editing by Mark Heinrich