More than books over the summer holidays: Students at graduation in Baghdad. (photo: Getty)
Instead of spending their summer break studying or relaxing, thousands of Iraqi students have been getting military and intelligence training so that they are able to do their part fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State, if they have to.
On June 5, Iraq's highest Shiite Muslim religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the students to engage in “intellectual, cultural, ... and weapons training”. In the announcement, which was passed on through al-Sistani's spokesperson, Ahmad al-Safi, in a Friday sermon, it was explained that the students' training was being made available so that the students would be prepared for potential danger if they were called upon to face it. It was also about “the importance of a good understanding of the events taking place around us and increasing the students' awareness and understanding,” al-Safi explained.
Female students were not included in the call to come to military training.
As the Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, pointed out, the new training programs would be run by militia groups already affiliated with the religious establishment in Najaf. “Shortly after [al-Sistani's call, one of the groups] Firqat al-Abas al-Qitaliyah began to open training centres to conduct 15-day military training cycles in Baghdad, Basra, Dhi Qar, Diyala, Muthana, Babel, Diwaniya, and Karbala,” the Institute reported in its June 25 release. The militias running the training tended to be affiliated with the religious establishment in Najaf and the Iraqi government, rather than have loyalties elsewhere like some of the other Iraqi militias who look more toward Iran.
The subtext to the religious establishment's message and the training seemed to be that patriotic Iraqi students would be able to act as sources of intelligence in their hometowns. It was not just about adding to the numbers of the volunteer, mostly Shiite Muslim, militias who were fighting the Islamic State, or IS, group around Iraq – nor was it just about having reserves to call up. It was about spotting potential terrorists and sleeper cells at home.
“We want every student to become the eyes of our intelligence services in his area or in his university,” confirmed Wasfi Hashem, a spokesperson for the training department of the volunteer militias. “As the department responsible for the military training of the volunteers, we will provide all required facilities and give them all the assistance they need.”
The training took place in 15 day periods over 45 days in total. During the courses students on holiday learned how to use weapons and fight and they also did physical training. Collaborating with the Ministries of Education and of Higher Education, the militias in charge of the training say they also want to distance the courses from any sectarian or ethnic affiliations. The door was open to any and all students who wanted to join in. And the training was voluntary.
“We are not forcing anyone to come here,” one of the trainers, Mohammed Wannas, told NIQASH; his course is being carried out on university grounds in the upmarket and mostly-Sunni-Muslim-populated Adhamiya neighbourhood of Baghdad. “Any person who wants the training can come and get it here,” Wannas said, noting that he and his fellow trainers were well aware of Iraq's problematic social divisions and that they were actively avoiding making them an issue.
Speaking to the student volunteers in Adhamiya, none of them appeared to have any problem trading their summer break for military preparedness. Obviously, because the training was voluntary, the students who chose to come had their reasons for joining: Some were there because their religious leadership had asked them to be there, others wanted to serve their country and assist in areas that had previously been liberated from the IS group. Others still said they thought it was just a good idea to learn some skills with weapons and martial arts. None of their families had any problem with their decision to do military training over the holidays, they told NIQASH.
“We came here to be trained on how to protect our country and as a response to the call of our religious authority,” explains one student, Raed Diaa. “At the moment we're doing weapons training and we are going to be ready to defend our country at any time. This is a sacred duty.”
“We are all soldiers when it comes to the defence of our dear country against the IS group,” adds Rafat Subhi, an employee of the university who had also signed up for the course during the holidays.
The students' potential as sources of intelligence may also play a big part in a new security plan that is apparently being developed for the Iraqi capital, with a view to implementing it in September. According to Mohammed al-Rubaie, a member of the provincial council's security committee, the new plan involves 22 central control points that will reduce the potential for sleeper cells in Baghdad as well as the entry of car bombs into the city.