Despite the danger, many young Iraqis see the army as a chance for a regular wage.
Her eyes are tearful as she shows off the military uniform in the closet. But it is not because Saja Mohammed Abdul Rasul is mourning a death on the battlefield. It is because this uniform cost her and her husband, Muthather Hussein, a lot of money, savings that they couldn’t afford to loose.
Rasul has been married to Hussein for only a year – the couple are in their late teens and live in one of the low income areas in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. Hussein works as a labourer on construction sites but his income is low and erratic and what he really wanted to do was join the Iraqi army. Like so many other young Iraqis, there, he thought, despite the danger, he would earn regular wages.
Hussein met a local man through relatives who said he could help him achieve this dream. The man even said he could guarantee him a good rank. But it would cost money – US$2,000. So Hussein asked Rasul if he could sell her gold jewellery in order to be granted an in to the military – after he got the military job he promised her he would pay her back with far finer jewellery.
“The salaries paid to army officers are high,” Hussein explains. “And I thought then I could keep my promise to my wife. I was so eager to join the army even though its a dangerous job.”
And so, perhaps rather naively, Hussein and Rasul paid all their money to the man who had said he was a general, and who promised Hussein the rank of a lieutenant if he joined – this was despite the fact that Hussein had no qualifications or military training. After the alleged general received the couple's money, he disappeared. His cell phone numbers no longer work and they have no idea where he is. They quickly realised they had been swindled.
Apparently Hussein is not the only young Karbala man to be fooled in this way. The current security crisis in Iraq, caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, is chaotic and characterized by disorganisation in the Iraqi army as well as the presence of many different unofficial fighting groups. Many locals knew about all kinds of corruption in the Iraqi military so perhaps it's not surprising that young men here think they can buy their way into the army.The Iraqi military offers a regular wage and even social standing to those who can get in - and often you can only get into the army if you know the right people. So it is not surprising that the idea of buying your way in seems quite possible - although recently, in dozens of cases in Karbala, also not true.
Usually the swindlers involved say they have close contacts in the Iraqi army and that they can help locals get into the ranks. Some, like the man Hussein spoke with, say they can even guarantee a higher rank and thereby a better salary.
Haider Abdul-Amir is another of the Karbala locals who says he fell for this trick even though, as he puts it, he was very cautious.
“A man who is well known in my neighbourhood offered to help me become a captain in a military unit called the Karbala Defence Battalion,” Abdul-Amir says. “But I told him that I wouldn’t pay the US$4,000 he wanted until I actually joined the military unit and got that rank.”
Abdul-Amir was then taken to a camp in the desert where he was signed into what he thought was a military brigade. He saw a number of men in uniforms who seemed to be officers or soldiers.
“But it never occurred to me that almost everyone who was there was also a victim, like me,” Abdul-Amir says. “After two months we realised the camp was just a set up and that it had nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence. Most of the people in uniform were part of a gang that specialized in this kind of fraud and they all gradually disappeared.”
Karbala is one of Iraq's most holy cities – it gets millions of mostly Shiite Muslim visitors every year from abroad and is under very tight security most of the time. So it is hard to imagine anyone being able to set up a fake army base near Karbala without local authorities having some idea of what was going on.
The head of the provincial council's security committee, Aqeel al-Masoudi, said they had had no information about any such camp. “But we will investigate quickly and we will organise local security agencies to check on this camp,” al-Masoudi said. “Additionally victims of this fraud should make official complaints.”
“These gangs appeared after the highest Shiite Muslim authority [al-Sistani] called upon locals to take part in the holy fight against the extremists,” says Hassan Obaid Issa, a security expert and senior army officer based in Karbala. “Given the collapse of the Iraqi army and the current security chaos, it seems only natural that things like this would happen,” he suggested. “It just reflects the general disarray in the country.”
Meanwhile all that the young couple, Rasul and Muthather, can do is pray that they can get their money back and that the Karbala authorities will do their best to find the man who dashed their hopes and took their savings.