The ‘ghosts’ and ‘aliens’ that wreak havoc in Syria and Iraq

In Syria, ghosts do exist but the state’s payroll does not recognise their special function.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Shadowy villains. A 2013 file picture shows Syrian rebels standing next to two detainees (2nd L, 2nd R) of shabbiha in Aleppo. (Reuters)
Shadowy villains. A 2013 file picture shows Syrian rebels standing next to two detainees (2nd L, 2nd R) of shabbiha in Aleppo. (Reuters)

“Ghosts” (“shabbiha”) is the name Syrians chose at the beginning of the revolution for snipers shooting at demonstrators from concealed positions. In the Iraqi context, it is “aliens” (“fazayeen”) who get the attention. These are ghosts with a more frightening name.

The Iraqi “aliens” don’t shoot at people. They have a different role than Syria’s “ghosts.” What ghosts and aliens have in common, though, is that they are both concealed from view and are not known by their supposed functions.

Ghosts and aliens reveal their presence through their actions. In Iraq, aliens are legal entities with all the rights of Iraqi citizenship, except, of course, that they don’t really exist because they are virtual objects.

Aliens in Iraq reside in the payroll. They are names of people who don’t exist. When former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in 2014 the dismissal from public service of 50,000 aliens, many thought the Iraqi state was going to be paralysed. The number was indeed large.

Things, however, did not come to a halt. The state survived. However, the firing of 50,000 employees did not have a positive effect on the budget. The deficit was still there.

So, the 50,000 aliens stopped receiving their salaries but nobody asked about the time they had spent benefiting from those salaries or about who received them. Abadi had simply made the announcement and conveniently omitted to address those and other details that might have embarrassed him and his comrades. No one really took the time to ask him, either.

Nobody in Iraq knows how many of those aliens are still in service. The same is true for Syria, where even the regime has no idea about the number of ghosts serving it. The Syrian opposition said that number is rising but that may be because the Syrian opposition labels as a ghost anyone who disagrees with its views.

I asked a Syrian friend about a mutual friend of ours. He answered: “Oh man! He’s a ghost.” I laughed because I was impressed by how a fantasy had become a reality. Sensing my scepticism, my friend added: “He has an office at the presidential palace.”

“The fantasy can really grow since it’s about ghosts,”

I thought.

Back to Iraq where the speaker of the Iraqi parliament revealed the discovery of 300 aliens among the personal guards assigned to the protection of his predecessor. I can safely declare that a new population census in Iraq will reveal more than 60 million inhabitants, provided that the census counts the number of employees on the payroll of the Iraqi state.

It is a weird system, the one we have in Iraq. You’re likely to meet aliens at every nook and cranny of the state machine, especially in very sensitive departments such as the army, the intelligence services, the police, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Oil, surveillance and protection companies and even the landscaping companies in charge of maintaining the lawns at the residencies of our rulers.

Remember the defeat of the Iraqi Army in Mosul? It must have been caused by the extraordinary number of aliens within its ranks. No one was sure of the number of soldiers in that army who fled from the field of a battle that didn’t take place.

How many soldiers were there in Mosul, 20,000 or 50,000? The gap between those numbers is huge but nobody really cared about the scandal, not even Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister at the time. He was too busy weaving lies about Kurdish and Sunni conspiracies against Iraq’s Shias. Years later, Abadi fired 50,000 of these aliens.

“Leave the aliens alone and don’t bother them or bother us with their subject,” say the watchwords among politicians in Iraq. It was only normal that the halls of the ministries and state institutions become crammed with invisible aliens while Iraq’s young people are unemployed. The aliens got all the salaries!

In Syria, ghosts do exist but the state’s payroll does not recognise their special function. They are regular employees who get paid like all the other employees. In Iraq, the alien has one and only one function: to exist on the payroll. Aliens don’t have to bother about collecting their salaries; someone else will do it for them.

I would not be exaggerating to say that every Iraqi official must have a personal army of aliens with him, pumping tonnes of money into his pockets.