KHOR AZ-ZUBAIR, Iraq — Eight years after the United States disbanded the Iraqi army and set out to build a new one, uniformed Iraqi soldiers seem ubiquitous and increasingly professional.
But Iraqi politicians and military officers say the country’s armed forces remain dysfunctional, with power dangerously decentralized and wielded by regional fiefdoms controlled by Iraq’s top politician.
Local commanders have a direct line to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, circumventing heads of the military. The armed forces remain focused almost entirely on internal security; no one knows how the Iraqi military would come together to fight a foreign enemy, or even who would be in charge.
With U.S. troops scheduled to pull out of Iraq by the end of the year, it has long been clear that the withdrawal would leave the country without many advanced military capabilities, including fighter aircraft and other sophisticated equipment.
But with Iraqi military and police power increasingly concentrated under Maliki, there is also growing concern that Iraq’s military could be seen as an agent of the country’s Shiite majority, a perception that would inflame sectarian tension.
In addition to serving as prime minister, Maliki has retained three titles for the past six months — acting simultaneously as head of Iraq’s defense, interior and national security ministries. He has said that political squabbles have prevented him from fulfilling a commitment to apportion authority over the security branches among the country’s three main sectarian blocs, as he promised when he formed a government in December.
Since then, Baghdad-based elements of the security forces have repeatedly arrested political protesters, carried out questionable raids on offices of Iraqi journalists and, according to leading Sunnis, dismissed more than 600 officers solely because of their political affiliations.
“The reality is we do not know the state of the Iraqi armed forces; only [Maliki] does,” said Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni. “I am the speaker, and I do not know. All the security agencies are being run by one man; he gives orders to 1 million men.”
Ali al-Dabbagh, Maliki’s minister of information and the chief government spokesman, said the prime minister has no intention of retaining operational control of the country’s military, police and intelligence agencies. He said naming heads of the ministries remains Maliki’s “top priority” and will happen soon.
Yet, if and when he does, the regional domains that have developed under Maliki could continue to give him near-total backdoor control.
During a series of military exercises that concluded last month in Khor az-Zubair, a southern port near Basra, the head of a local security operations center with a direct line to Maliki assumed broad authority. The local security chief directed the Iraqi navy and coast guard to intercept a boat carrying mock terrorists, ordered special forces — a separate branch in the nation’s military — to swoop in to attack a compound and instructed Iraqi army helicopters to fire Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.
Nearly a dozen such specially appointed commanders across Iraq have similar power, U.S. military officers and other experts say. Most of these commanders are army officers. In eastern Iraq, a police commander holds the position, making him a direct link to Maliki and the ultimate arbiter of Iraqi military power in the region.
If the operational commanders disagree with their superiors, they could take their case directly to Maliki.
“They are essentially extra-constitutional entities,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. “Their chain of command goes straight through the operations center to the prime minister.”
Buchanan said U.S. forces established temporary operations centers about three years ago to fulfill a need to coordinate election day security, but the Iraqi government has since expanded the number of centers and increased their authority far beyond what was intended.
Shifting power away from these operations centers and toward Iraq’s constitutionally approved military chain of command “will require political dialogue,” Buchanan said, but that goal is essentially on hold until Maliki names the heads of the security ministries and they are confirmed by the parliament.
The decentralized structure is the clearest example of the dysfunction that still permeates the army, which includes about 200,000 of Iraq’s 250,000 uniformed military service members. The police force is about twice as large and has organizational issues of its own.
Other problems also plague the army. According to more than a dozen Iraqi army officers interviewed in recent months, soldiers must often transport a shredded Humvee tire or blown engine hundreds of miles to prove to a superior that a part is indeed broken, before a replacement is authorized, leaving many units ill-equipped.
And on the streets of Baghdad, soldiers manning checkpoints say the only predictable way to ensure a promotion is to buy it and have an unscrupulous commander skim off the equivalent of two months’ pay.
Despite such signs, U.S. military commanders say they remain confident that Iraqi forces can maintain security, at least at current levels, even if Maliki’s government does not ask the United States to keep some American troops in Iraq beyond this year.
They note that Iraq’s military and police have been in the lead in securing the country over the past two years, a period in which overall violence has dropped to about 10 percent of the level seen during the most deadly years of sectarian conflict that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
But even the most ardent supporters of Iraq’s fledgling military say work will be needed long after the U.S. withdrawal to continue nudging the army in the right direction.
“Since standing up the new Iraqi army beginning in 2003, one of the key things we were always after was to help build a sound, professional culture of military,” Buchanan said. “That, as such, is still a work in progress — and it’s going to be a work in progress for many, many years.”
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.