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Iraq says it found 50,000 'ghost soldiers' on payroll

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s new government has discovered 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who received army salaries without showing up for work, a practice which accelerated the military’s collapse in the face of Islamic State fighters six months ago.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks at a news conference with Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (not pictured) in Baghdad, November 20, 2014. REUTERS/Hadi Mizban/Pool

The names were uncovered in an investigation launched by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who took office in September, his spokesman Rafid Jaburi said.

“Ghost soldiers” were men on the army payroll who paid their officers a portion of their salaries and in return did not show up for duty, enriching their commanders and hollowing out the military force.

“Those 50,000 soldiers were revealed after an intense search through military documents and there will be a field search in order to put an end to this phenomenon and any other form of corruption,” Jaburi said.

Local officials in Mosul said the city should have been defended from an Islamic State attack in June by 25,000 soldiers and police, but in reality the number was at best 10,000. Islamic State militants took over the city with barely a fight.

The United States, which has spent billions of dollars trying to build up Iraq’s armed forces before it pulled out in 2011, has sent military advisers back to Iraq to train them to take on the Islamic State fighters who now control much of the north and west of the country.

Since taking over as premier from Nuri al-Maliki, Abadi has sacked dozens of military officials appointed during Maliki’s eight-year rule and pledged to root out corruption.

On Monday Abadi’s office announced he had retired 24 senior Interior Ministry officials and replaced them with new officers under a reform plan to make the security forces “more effective in confronting terrorism”.

Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters last week there was a need for deep-rooted reform of the security forces to fight what he called corruption and mismanagement.

“The military has to be cleaned of all these numbers, figures of ghost soldiers and other mismanagement,” he said.

Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Robin Pomeroy