WASHINGTON – Iraq's government has kept thousands of dead, injured or absent policemen and soldiers on the payroll as a way to compensate or care for their families, an audit found.
The practice is just one example of why there are no reliable numbers on how many Iraqi forces are on the job at any given time, says the report being made public Friday by Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
"There are continuing uncertainties about the true number ... who are present for duty at any one time," Bowen said of Iraqi policemen, soldiers, border guards and other forces.
Bowen said another part of the problem is that Iraqi ministries lack automated accounting systems needed to keep good data.
"I would not call it a damning report. I would say it's reflective of the difficulty of assessing troop strength ... and, more importantly, capabilities," Bowen said in an interview Thursday.
Bowen had been asked to assess last month's Defense Department report on Iraq, one in a series of quarterly documents required by Congress to measure progress toward military and political security there.
The $20 billion U.S. program to train Iraqis to provide their own security is key to when U.S. troops levels can be reduced in Iraq. And the problem of assessing the Iraqi forces is not new.
Bowen noted that efforts have been made to improve the quarterly report's data on the number of Iraqis forces that have been authorized, trained, are being paid and are on duty.
"However, the details included in the reports and other available information suggests a continuing need for caution in relying on the accuracy and usefulness of the numbers," Bowen said.
He did not give any details on how many might be receiving pay while being absent, but noted the Pentagon once reported the actual number of present-for-duty soldiers was about one-half to two-thirds of those being paid.
Bowen said that for his report, commanders in charge of the training gave him an updated figure, saying early this month 70 percent of soldiers on Iraq's Army payroll may be present for duty on any given day.
In addition to keeping people on the payroll though they are not serving, Bowen found that changes in how the numbers are reported make it difficult to compare information from one report to another.
He also noted that Iraqis have a shortage of officers and still rely on coalition forces for substantial logistical support — two common themes also previously acknowledged by commanders in the field. Because the focus has been on internal security need, Iraq's longer-term job of setting up a force against outside threats remains, Bowen noted.
Earlier reports to Congress used numbers of Iraqis trained through U.S.-funded programs. Because the Iraqi government is now responsible for setting force requirements and counting personnel, the December quarterly report marked the first time that Iraqi statistics were used.
"The Department of Defense makes some efforts to determine and comment on the reliability of the data presented" in the quarterly reports to Congress, Bowen said. "However, as the Iraqi government assumes greater control over the forces trained and assigned, U.S. officials envision that they will have less visibility over data reliability."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who requested the report, said he found it "bizarre" that a Defense Department assessment as recently as September showed that Iraqis only estimated a need for 390,000 security forces — a number that jumped by March to nearly 573,000
"That really is the trigger of when ultimately we can begin bringing troops home, when they have the stability and ability to provide for their own security," said Dorgan.