By Ahmed Ali
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi issued orders on November 12 to shuffle commanders and senior officials within the Iraqi security structure. This is his first major set of changes to the Iraqi Security Forces. Press reports indicate the changes focused on the Ministry of Defense and regional Operations Commands that were established by former Prime Minister and current Vice President, Nouri al-Maliki, although a full and official list of the changes has not been released. The Operations Commands function as centers in charge of providing and supervising security either for individual provinces or provinces grouped together based on geography. Based on the leaks, the changes have not included the other important security ministry, namely the Ministry of Interior, which in the Abadi government is under the control of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization. The changes are the most significant since Abadi became Prime Minister in September and represent the beginning of the Abadi era as Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
The Security Shuffle
According to Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office, the personnel changes were intended “to consolidate the work of the military establishment based on professionalism and combating corruption in all its forms.” Abadi is highlighting counter-corruption because the Iraqi Security Forces and its commanders have a reputation for being corrupt, inefficient, and unprofessional. The changes included dismissing 26 commanders and the “retiring” of 10 other commanders. The prominent changes include:
- Replacing Iraqi Army Chief of Staff. General Babkar Zebari, an Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Commander who has been in position since 2003, with Lieutenant General-Staff. Khurshid Salim Doski who is also an Iraqi Kurd and was the commander of the Ninewa-based 3rd Iraqi Army Division from 2006-2009. Doski was a deputy to Zebari before this change. Four of Zebari’s deputies who are unnamed were also dismissed.
- Dismissal of the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) Commander, Lt. General-Staff. Abed al-Amir al-Shammari, who Vice President Nouri al-Maliki (during his prior premiership) appointed as the commander in May of 2013. It is unclear who will be the new BOC commander.
- Removal of the Mid-Euphrates Operations Commander, Lt. General-Staff Othman al-Ghanimi, from his position to be an assistant to Doski. Ghanimi was the commander of the 8th Iraqi Army division from 2005-2010. It is also unclear who will be the new commander of Mid-Euphrates Operations Command.
- Removal of the Anbar Operations Command (AOC) Commander, Lt. General Rashid Fleih, and reportedly moving him to be a deputy to Doski as well. Lt. General Qassim al-Mohammedi of the Anbar-based 7th Iraqi Army Division will reportedly take command of the 7th Division.
- Appointing Major General Imad al-Zuhairi to be the commander of the Samarra Operations Command instead of Sabah al-Fatlawi.
- Dismissal of the Ministry of Defense Chief of Military Intelligence, Hatem al-Magsusi. Magsusi was also appointed by Maliki in May 2013.
The dissolution of four Iraqi Army Divisions in the north as Mosul fell on June 10, 2014 dramatically changed Iraq’s armed forces, and the Iranian government has taken an increasingly direct role in the security sector. This shuffle is Abadi’s first major imprint on the security sector since becoming Prime Minister in September. His first significant administrative decision was dissolving the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC) shortly after assuming office by retiring Generals Abud Qanbar and Ground Forces Commander Ali Ghaidan. As premier Maliki had used OCINC to centralize the security decision-making under his sole authority without following the appointed, formal chain of command. Abadi’s intent to dissolve OCINC and the personnel shuffle illustrate his desire personally to affect Iraq’s reconstituting security services. Abadi is also clearly purging the security establishment of generals and commanders who were loyal to Maliki and can be described as “Maliki’s men.”
Within the new security structure, Abadi will also likely rely on Lt. General-Staff Othman al-Ghanimi as a major influencer within the Army Staff. Ghanimi was not perceived to be a close Maliki ally and this past makes him the type of commander that Abadi would likely need as he embarks on bringing Iraq’s security establishment under his influence. The removal of Hatem al-Magsusi is also significant given the intelligence deficit from which the ISF suffers.
It will also be important to watch who will be the new Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) Commander. Baghdad faces the continued threat of Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) and IEDs. These threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) persist. In addition, the Iraqi Shi’a militias which operate in Baghdad with impunity and without regard to the ISF presence challenge the ISF in the capital. As a result, the next BOC commander will be crucial in either reigning in the militias or allowing their further freedom of movement.
Abadi’s changes are also intended to win public support. The public is indignant with the ISF’s performance . It is important for Abadi to signal to the public that he wants to combat corruption and remove incompetent commanders.
However, Prime Minister Abadi’s major challenge will be reforming and controlling the Ministry of Interior (MoI). MoI is currently led by Badr Member Mohammed al-Ghaban. The Iranian-backed Badr organization is not under Abadi’s command, but rather that competes with his formal authority as commander in chief. Former Transport Minister, Hadi al-Ameri, leads the Badr organization, which envisions itself as a chief player in a new Iraqi security structure. Furthermore, the militias that have gained acceptance and have been more effective than the ISF in countering ISIS formally fall under the control of the MoI as part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) directorate. Abadi may choose to confront the militias and challenge the MoI in the long-term, but in the short-term he will tolerate their preeminence as his government contemplates a strategy to defeat ISIS.
Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at Institute for the Study of War