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We Would Rather Immigrate:
Cunning Iraqi Plan to Turn Volunteer Militias Into Army Backfires

Mustafa Habib
The plan to re-activate mandatory military service seemed a clever way to deal with powerful volunteer militias. But almost immediately the plan ran into major road blocks.
24.03.2016  |  Baghdad
An Iraqi army training camp. (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)
An Iraqi army training camp. (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)

Last week, a spokesperson for Iraq’s Ministry of Defence announced that a law that brought back compulsory military service for all Iraqi men aged between 19 and 45 had been approved by a council within the Ministry.

The idea for the new military draft had come about for several reasons.

Firstly, it would work as a replacement for the National Guard plan which had not worked out. The National Guard law was supposed to enable each province to raise their own military and defend their own territories- it was widely perceived as a way for the Iraqi government to gain the trust of Sunni Muslims around the country, who did not believe a mostly-Shiite Muslim army would protect them.

Secondly, the new draft law is being seen as a way to overcome the threats posed by the increasingly powerful Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who came together to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which has positioned itself as a defender of Sunni Muslim rights in Iraq. There is concern that the militias, which are very sectarian in nature and which also represent a division between pro-government and pro-Iran Shiite Muslim politicians, will continue to make a lasting, and potentially violent, impression on Iraq’s political and social landscape. However if every Iraqi male in this age group is forced to become part of the national army, even temporarily, this would mean they cannot also be part of the volunteer militias, and if all goes according to plan, the militias would be subsumed into the national fighting force, without – hopefully – the sectarian imbalance.  

The new bill has brought back bad memories -in particular, Saddam Hussein's punishment for draft dodgers: cutting off an ear.

Unfortunately this cunning plan ran into problems almost immediately. Some of the paragraphs in the draft law actually came from an earlier law on compulsory military service, one issued by the former Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein. After Hussein’s regime was toppled by the US military, the abolition of conscription was seen as one of the most positive developments.  

Hussein’s military draft left a lot of bad memories. It was applied to all young Iraqis – any 19-year-old, who did not go onto tertiary study, had to do 36 months of military service. For those who finished high school, this dropped to 24 months and anyone who’d done a Master’s degree or a doctorate, only had to do four months of military service.

The only way to avoid military service was to pay your way out of it – an amount equal to about IQD2 million (now worth around US$1,730) was needed to avoid the draft. Before 2003, this was a very large amount of money in Iraq, enough to buy a small house, so it was only the sons of the wealthy or of very senior officials who could afford to escape this duty.  

Penalties for anybody who tried to avoid conscription were harsh – many Iraqis remember one of the best-known that involved amputating the ears of draft dodgers. So it’s no wonder the idea of conscription, even if it is well intentioned, is bringing back some bad memories.

“In 1995, I was chased around my neighbourhood by members of [Saddam Hussein’s] Baath party,” recalls Khudair al-Bahadli, a 43-year-old local of the Shiite Muslim neighbourhood, Sadr City, in Baghdad. “I was 19 and I was supposed to join the army but I had to work to look after my family. After several hours, they caught me, put me in a military jeep and took me to an army camp. When we got there they cut off one of my ears.”

Years later, the decision to bring back compulsory conscription angers al-Bahadli, who’s still within the age group liable to be drafted. “They want to force me to join the army again,” he told NIQASH. “It’s inhumane. And it’s only going to make many young people want to leave Iraq.”

Al-Bahadli is not alone in this argument. Thousands of young Iraqis voiced their opinions on Iraqi social media. Hash tags that said “against compulsory military service” and “find me a home and I’ll join the army” were popular. Many of the commentators threatened to leave the country if the draft is enforced; there’s no doubt emigration would increase if the law were applied.

Others debated the idea. Would the draft be applied to the sons of political leaders? Would the political leaders themselves – some of whom fall into this age group – be forced to join the army? And how would compliance be enforced?

Besides popular opinion going against the idea of conscription, there are also other things that might get in the way of this idea ever becoming a reality.

At the moment the law is only a draft that has been approved by the Ministry of Defence. It will take months to make the long progress through the political system, if it makes it through at all. After that, many more months will be required to implement it.

Additionally, should all of those required to, suddenly turn up for military training, there are not enough army camps or military facilities to accommodate them all. According to data from Iraq’s Central Bureau of Statistics, part of the national Ministry of Planning, there are about 19 million males in Iraq’s 37-million-strong population. Those in the age group specified for the draft number about 5 million.

“Getting all of these people into military training would require dozens of new camps, a lot of money and thousands of new officers to oversee the training,” one lieutenant colonel working for the Ministry of Defence’ human resources department, told NIQASH on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the subject. “As it is, the Iraqi army is having a crisis when it comes to training. That’s why we are working with the international coalition [against the extremist Islamic State group] to train police and soldiers already. I believe any new mandatory military service law will take decades to prepare for.”

Another problem is who exactly the new law might apply to. Millions of Iraqis live in areas under the control of the Islamic State, or IS, group, and wouldn’t be able to join the Iraqi military because they cannot leave those areas. Additionally there are millions of displaced Iraqis, in various places around the country, and the Iraqi government doesn’t even know where every man of military age might be.

There is also the risk that the draft could become yet another form of corruption in Iraq. The phenomenon of “ghost soldiers” – that is, soldiers who pay their seniors part of their wages so they don’t have to turn up to service and can work at other jobs instead – is already widespread.

If the draft goes ahead, “many Iraqis won’t go to the army because most of them have other jobs,” says Abdul-Jabbar Samir, an employee at the Ministry of Finance. “They’ll just pay bribes to the officers so they don’t have to turn up.”

Confronted with this virtual tidal wave of criticism and problems, Iraqi MPs took a cautious approach. Many said that the law wouldn’t be implemented immediately and that there would be plenty of amendments made during discussions in Parliament.

“The law won’t get any further without Parliament’s approval,” Ammar Tohme, a Shiite Muslim MP who is a member of the Iraqi Parliament's Security and Defence Committee, told NIQASH. “The Committee has already suggested amendments and these will be included in the final version of the law.”

One of these includes making military service voluntary. Tohme told NIQASH that any young man who decides to join the army should be paid well and should clearly see a career path that opens up other opportunities to a civilian position in the future. This isn’t as strange an idea as it sounds. Since 2003 and the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq has had a volunteer system for its military. Hundreds of thousands of young Iraqi men have joined the military this way and it’s a popular career path in this rentier economy – so popular in fact, that volunteer numbers have needed to be restricted annually.

“Additionally mandatory military service contradicts this democratic system and it restricts people’s freedoms,” Tohme argues.