Just as Iraq’s Parliament is apparently entering into discussions on whether the country should get a new conscription law – which would force eligible citizens into military service from six months to a year – Qarim Hassan was recalling his own memories of war.
“I was 18 years old when I joined the army. Most of my friends in the army are dead now – and the few that are not, are living a miserable life,” Hassan says; he was conscripted in 1987 and was meant to leave after three years. But he stayed in the army.
“I was working as a carpenter but I left my job and became a soldier,” he laments. “And I didn’t escape, or resign, because at the time, any soldier leaving the army was considered a coward and a traitor and was executed.”
Hassan’s experiences in the army during the rule of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein have him opposed to conscription. He says it was a devastating experience for a whole generation and that it will destroy Iraq’s next generation, the way it destroyed his.
The Iraqi army was built up in 1921 and 1922, with help from Iraq’s British colonisers. But it wasn’t until after the British left in 1932, that universal compulsory conscription began in 1934. Compulsory conscription carried on – and in fact, was one of the causes behind various violent incidents and military coups – with successive governments amending it, as time passed.
During the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, conscription was linked to the educational level of the conscripts. Holders of a high school diploma or lower were forced to spend three years in the army whereas university students only had to spend half that time (18 months) in military service. Holders of higher degrees, such as a masters or a doctorate, only had to do six months. Most of Saddam Hussein’s army was composed of conscripts.
It was also possible to avoid military service in Hussein’s era by paying for exemption – although usually this cost a lot and it was only very wealthy Iraqis who could avoid conscription.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Hussein, the Iraqi army was dissolved and conscription was cancelled. The Iraqi military has been back in action for some time and now it seems that conscription may be reactivated too.
Defence Ministry consultant Majid al-Sari goes into further detail about how the new conscription law might work. “The period of compulsory military service will only be between six months and a year,” he explains. “And reservists will only be called up in case of emergencies.”
“Additionally,” he says, “the well qualified – for instance, with university degrees – or those who have the potential for employment, may well be exempted from military service. And the law may also exempt those who don’t wish to serve, under certain conditions.”
Politicians who support the conscription law say conscription will provide employment in a country where unemployment is a major problem. Conscription supporters are aware that Iraqi army pay rates have already attracted many Iraqi university graduates into military ranks. They also point out that the Iraqi army isn’t fighting wars anymore and is mostly deployed in urban areas, where soldiers man checkpoints.
According to conscription supporters, this is a positive point.
Another positive point is that it will see Iraqis from different sects and ethnicities serving together in the military, something that may lessen ethnic tensions.
“The reactivation of conscription is an opportunity to rid Iraq of ill-advised policies from [head of the US’ temporary authority Paul] Bremer’s era,” al-Sari says.
Those policies saw the formation of different military groups, split according to ethnicity or sect – Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish. The policy, which was also applied in some ways to the formation of the Iraqi government, was supposed to share out power between the main interest groups in Iraq. In some ways, this worked but in other ways, it also deepened the splits already running deep in Iraqi society – as evidenced by the outbreak of sectarian violence after 2003.
“Bremer’s policies led to the creation of Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite military forces,” al-Sari says. “And it made the Iraqi military institution play a part in the newly introduced quota system, based on sectarian and ethnic origins.”
“It will provide the army with fresh blood and it will strengthen social ties because the soldiers will be deployed all around Iraq together, no matter what their origin,” Ali al-Hirbawi, spokesperson for the political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, says.
“The law is also an opportunity to get rid of corrupt officers as well as those who held high ranks during the former regime’s era,” he added.
However opponents of the new conscription law argue that past decades’ painful experience, the wars formerly fought by Iraqi army and the miserable conditions Iraqi soldiers had to endure, are all factors that have led most Iraqis to despise a military life and possibly also, the military itself. They believe that this perception of the Iraqi army must change and that the best way to do this is not conscription. Rather, they argue, joining the modern Iraqi army should be voluntary.
“The only positive thing about the compulsory military service is that it brings all the Iraqi people, regardless of their sects and religion, together,” Tariq al-Abarseem, a legal expert and council member in Basra told NIQASH – and indeed this is one of the main arguments that advocates of conscription are using. They say it will lessen sectarian tensions in the country.
But, as al-Abarseem also points out, “the national spirit could be built up in other ways, for instance, by building an elite army. Because it’s not how many soldiers you have that matter, it is their standard of excellence and their professionalism.”
Al-Abarseem notes that there is a low rate of literacy in Iraq. “And if this law is implemented, many illiterate people will join the army. Modern armies are those that have university graduates operating advanced defence systems. I really can’t understand the value of training someone who cannot read and write on how to use a Kalashnikov,” he argues.
Abbas al-Jouzani, a member of Basra’s local communist party isn’t sure whether the time is even right for a conscription law. “In the future, it may be more useful,” he argues. “In ten years or more, when conditions are more stable and reconstruction is well under way, that’s when nobody will actually want to join the army. So that is when compulsory service should start.”
Another issue is the reaction of the government of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. They have their own separate military and because of the bloody history between the central government and the Kurdish one, and the role played by the Iraqi army in repressing the Kurds, they regard a strong Iraqi army with suspicion.
In fact, Kurdish journalist Baderkhan Hassan is not even sure whether Baghdad is serious about the conscription law. News about the law was published in the main section of Iraq’s Al Sabah newspaper, which is primarily an official mouthpiece for the government. And some suspect this means the government is really just sabre rattling.
“The topic has been raised by the government but members of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence have said that the law hasn’t even been submitted to Parliament yet,” Hassan says. “The government of [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki is threatening the Kurdish with this conscription law because of conflicts that already exist between the two regimes.”
Having said that though, Baderkhan didn’t think the Kurdish would necessarily reject the idea. “It’s better to maintain a kind of balance inside the military,” he muses. “And it is better the army accept the hundreds of young men, who are usually standing in long queues in front of the employment registration centres, and who become targets for recruitment by terrorist organisations.”
Before any such law can pass though, there are a variety of political obstacles it must pass, some of which, analysts suggest, may be insurmountable. The conscription law must be thoroughly debated in a Parliament that is so conflicted it has a hard time passing any laws at all; and it may well be put aside, as so many other laws have before it, until a new government has been elected.
And no matter what happens with the conscription law next, the military has plenty of problems of its own.
As one retired army officer boldly states: “the conscription law is a still birth, no matter what happens. The military is totally disorganized. Former militants don’t want to obey orders and thousands of soldiers and policemen pay half their salaries to their commanding officers so that they don’t have to show up for work. Some of those officers have only just managed to graduate from high school,” he scoffs. “Increasing the number of soldiers in the military [through conscription] is only going to increase these corrupt practices.”