BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi army is suffering badly from what locals describe as the “astronaut phenomenon.” That is, soldiers who pay money to superior officers so they can leave the world of the military and stay out of danger, far from the battlefield. This means that sometimes when a general sends a battalion to fight, only half the soldiers are there. And recently, with attacks by extremists, this phenomenon has been getting worse.
On September 27, Iraq’s Parliamentary committee on security and defense hosted a confidential meeting. One of the guests was Rasheed Flaih, the Lieutenant General who is in charge of the Iraqi army’s operations in the province of Anbar. Military men and politicians discussed the ever-increasing absence of soldiers from their units in the province.
“Participants in the meeting discussed the number of different sieges of the Iraqi army in the Anbar area and how many soldiers were being killed by members of the terrorist organization, the Islamic State,” one of those who attended the meeting told us on condition of anonymity.
“Also discussed was the fact that there had been an increase in the number of Iraqi soldiers who were leaving areas where they could expect to see action—such as the provinces Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala. This means that there are fewer than expected soldiers on the battlefields,” the source said.
One of those incidents mentioned was from earlier in September, when fighters from the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State, or ISIS as it is widely known, had managed to besiege an Iraqi army base and after cutting off their supply lines, launched an assault on the base. Although reports vary, it seems that most of the thousand or so soldiers at the base may have been captured or killed. Only around 200 managed to escape.
The source who attended the meeting also said that some of the judgments made by senior military commanders were not based on accurate information. For example, he said, the military leaders would send a certain battalion somewhere to fight but in reality half of the battalion would be missing—which meant that there were far fewer soldiers fighting than their commanders thought.
This phenomenon—where soldiers are not present within their assigned units—is not a new one in the Iraqi military. But they are not exactly desertions. Soldiers are bribing their way out of danger zones, paying a hefty part or all of their salary to their superior officers in return for the superior not reporting them absent. Locally, the nickname for these absent soldiers became “astronauts” because they might as well be floating somewhere out in space, since they are not involved in real life in Iraq’s military. And recently there have been more and more astronauts, mainly due to the soldiers’ concerns about gains made by ISIS.
“The astronaut phenomenon is destroying the Iraqi army,” one officer, Kadhim al-Shammari, told us. “There are senior officers who are making deals with dozens of their men, giving them vacations for months in return for part or all of the men’s salaries.”
Abbas al-Saadi is a soldier and by rights he should be stationed near Tikrit, where his unit is involved fighting ISIS. But instead he works as a taxi driver.
“If I was killed, who would look after my wife and three children?” he asks. “I love the military but I am worried about the ISIS. They not only kill soldiers in battle, they behead them and burn them. That’s why I decided to give all of my salary to the officer in charge of our unit so that he would register me absent with leave.”
So, al-Saadi makes his living by driving a taxi while his salary goes to his military senior. Soldiers like him say they will return to duty but that they are just waiting for their units to be shifted into other, less dangerous areas before they do.
According to the Parliamentary committee on security and defense there are thousands of soldiers like al-Saadi. Astronaut soldiers also include the men who escaped during raids or battles with the ISIS group and other forces, and then never returned to their units. They went home instead.
“A military unit should number 500 men but instead the astronaut phenomenon might mean that it only numbers 300,” says al-Shammari. “This means that the workload on other soldiers increases and that they have less vacation time and more responsibility.”
For example, he noted, some soldiers now only get a week’s vacation after 40 consecutive days on duty. Usually they should get a week’s vacation after only 21 working days.
It is almost as though corruption in Iraq’s army has worsened since a new military penal code was introduced in 2007. Although the military law sets strict penalties for soldiers who are absent without leave, especially during times of war, it is barely ever enforced.
“Our security forces have a big problem when it comes to non-enforcement of military law,” Mathhar al-Janabi, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defense, told us. “This makes members of the military are unafraid of doing illegal things—such as being absent without leave, illegal killing and otherwise not carrying out their military duties.”
As battles with the ISIS continue and details of the group’s barbaric practices continue to emerge, this problem is unlikely to improve anytime soon.
And even if they wanted to, other soldiers cannot notify the authorities about the astronaut soldiers who are no longer in their midst. If they were to tell anyone about those absent without leave, they’d have to report this to their officers—and more than likely, it is their officer who is benefiting from the bribes being paid to turn a blind eye to the astronauts.