BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday ordered his first major shakeup of his military since taking office three months ago, relieving 26 army officers of their commands and retiring 10 others as a monitoring group said airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group and other extremists in neighboring Syria have killed more than 860 people, including civilians, since they began in September.
The Iraqi military shakeup, which included the appointment of 18 new commanders, was ordered "as part of efforts to reinforce the work of the military on the basis of professionalism and fighting graft in all its forms," according to a statement posted on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's official website.
"The aim is not to punish anyone, but rather to improve our military performance," al-Abadi later said in comments to senior army officers.
A government official said the shake-up followed the findings of a probe ordered last month by al-Abadi on corruption in the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Under Iraq's constitution, al-Abadi, like Nouri al-Maliki before him, holds the post of General Commander of the Armed Forces. But it was al-Maliki, now a vice president, who had tightly controlled the military during his eight-year rule, with several elite units taking their orders directly from him.
Al-Maliki, in the final months of his administration, had spoken at length about corruption in the military — particularly in the wake of an embarrassing rout of Iraqi forces which saw the Islamic State militants capture about a third of the country in a few months. He cited cases where soldiers paid half their salary to their commanders so they could stay away from their units and work a second job. He also relieved several top commanders from their command and ordered others investigated for dereliction of duty.
Al-Abadi's move comes as government security forces and Shiite militias have largely halted the Islamic State militants' advance, even rolling them back from some areas with the help of coalition airstrikes. But heavy fighting still rages on multiple fronts, and attacks on government troops and civilians remain common, particularly in Baghdad.
On Wednesday, three bombings in and around the Iraqi capital killed at least 17 people and wounded nearly 40, police and hospital officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but they all bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group's tactics.
The deadliest bombing took place in the turbulent Youssifiyah district south of Baghdad, where a suicide car bomber hit an army checkpoint, killing six soldiers and wounding 16 people, including 10 civilians. Earlier in the day, a car bomb near a cluster of shops in western Baghdad killed six civilians and wounded 13 just minutes before a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of a nearby police station, killing five policemen and wounding 10.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that the vast majority of the more than 860 people killed in coalition airstrikes in Syria — 746 people — were Islamic State militants, while another 68 were members of al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. At least 50 civilians, including eight children and five women, also have been killed in the airstrikes, the group said.
The U.S.-led coalition's aerial campaign in Syria began before dawn on Sept. 23 in what President Barack Obama has called an effort to roll back and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group. The militant extremist group has been the primary target of the coalition's strikes, although on at least two occasions the United States has targeted what it says is a specific cell within the Nusra Front allegedly plotting attacks against American interests.
In northern Syria, meanwhile, Kurdish forces defending the town of Kobani from Islamic State militants took control of much of a strategic hill overlooking the town, local official Idriss Nassan and Kurdish fighter Dalil Boras said.
Nassan also said the Kurds managed to secure a road on the southeastern side of the town that the Islamic State had used to ferry supplies and reinforcements to its fighters besieging Kobani.
"This is big progress for the Kurdish forces," Nassan said.
The U.S. Central Command said the U.S. and allied nations conducted sixteen airstrikes in Syria and seven in Iraq since Monday. Most of those airstrikes were carried out near Kobani.
Elsewhere in Iraq, government forces backed by Shiite militiamen are facing tough resistance from Islamic State fighters in the refinery town of Beiji north of Baghdad, a day after they pushed militants out of the town center, according to two military officials reached there by telephone.
They said government forces were inching closer to the besieged refinery in Beiji, which accounts for a quarter of Iraq's refining capacity. Lifting the siege of the refinery was the next objective in the campaign, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Lucas reported from Beirut.
Associated Press correspondent Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston contributed to this report.