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'He Has Given Up Playing:' The Child Soldiers Fighting IS In Iraq

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

"They know what IS has done, and they are now shouldering the responsibility," says one reporter who has talked to children fighting with local Sunni militias.

"They know what IS has done, and they are now shouldering the responsibility," says one reporter who has talked to children fighting with local Sunni militias.

Hatem says he has been fighting on the front lines against Islamic State (IS) militants near Amirat al-Fallujah in Iraq for a year and a half now.

Many men from Hatem's tribe, the Albu Issa, have joined the battle against IS militants. So it is not surprising to hear that Hatem is fighting alongside his father and uncles.

But what is surprising -- and disturbing -- is that Hatem is just 10 years old.

His brother, Ahmed, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on June 11 that Hatem had "left behind his friends and his toys" to fight IS, dividing his time between school and the battlefield.

"We and our uncles help [Hatem] study, and in the morning we take him to school," Ahmed said. After that, Hatem returns to the front.

"He has given up playing and left his friends and everything over the two years we have been fighting those evil people," Ahmed said.

IS's systematic training and use of child soldiers in Iraq has been well-documented in the media, as has IS's use of propaganda to justify its use of children, including to carry out execution-style killings.

But recent reports have revealed another disturbing trend: the recruitment, training, and use of children by pro-government groups who are fighting against IS.

Iraqi law prohibits recruiting or enlisting children under age 15 into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities, according to the UN.

But this has not prevented children like Hatem from being recruited to fight.

The scale of the participation of Iraqi children in the armed conflict against IS is unknown. The UN reported in May 2014 that it had experienced difficulties in obtaining details about this phenomenon, in part because of reluctance on the part of the authorities to release information.

But a UN report released in June on children and armed conflict noted that Iraqi children as young as 10 are fighting IS alongside Sunni tribal forces, Shi'ite militias, and Kurdish groups.

"Children, including girls, were reportedly associated with Yazidi self-defense groups fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga and Turkmen-based self-defense groups in Ninewa and Kirkuk, and with Sunni tribal-based militias supporting ISF [Iraqi security forces] in Ramadi," the report by the UN secretary-general said.

Sunni Tribal Fighters

Mushtaqq Mohamed Abbas, an Iraqi journalist, has interviewed children from the Sunni Albu Fahd tribe in Ramadi who are receiving weapons and military training from tribal elders.

Abbas told RFE/RL on June 17 that such training had increased among tribes that are threatened by IS and that the practice is widespread. He claimed that between 80 and 90 percent of one tribe's children were being trained to fight.

Children as young as five are selected for training, Abbas said. "We find that most of the tribes in the western regions of Iraq -- Anbar, Khalidiya, and eastern Husayba -- are teaching their children to use weapons to defend [the tribes'] honor and womenfolk," he said.

Even tribes in Iraq's relatively peaceful southern regions are training children to carry weapons and in some cases children are receiving live-fire training, according to Abbas.

He said he asked children in Anbar Province why they were training to fight IS. "They would say: 'I want to defend my mother and father. I want to defend my sister. If I don't defend them, then who will? I prefer to die rather than allow my family to be hurt, raped, or abducted,'" Abbas said.

"They know what IS has done, and they are now shouldering the responsibility."

Shi'ite Militias

According to the UN report, boys as young as 10 years old have been recruited and used by pro-government militias in the Shi'ite Turkmen town of Amerli in Salah al-Din Province, the report said.

And the pro-government Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Units, or Hashd al-Shaabi, have recruited an unknown number of children from conflict areas, including in Baghdad and Basra, the UN found.

Formed in 2014 in response to a fatwa from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, after IS overran vast swathes of Iraq, the Hashd al-Shaabi claims to have recruited over 100,000 volunteers.

The Islamic State group's willingness to use children even as executioners is well-known.

The Islamic State group's willingness to use children even as executioners is well-known.

Moein al-Kazemi, a member of the Hashd's leadership committee, said last week that the volunteers who joined were mostly "students and workers." Kazemi did not mention the age range of the volunteers.

But Hashd al-Shaabi members told RFE/RL on June 11 that Abnaa al-Karrar, a new student volunteer regiment in Babil Province, had recruited members as young as 10 years old. "There are now more than 400-450 trainees whose ages range from about 10 years all the way up to university-age students," Abnaa al-Karrar media director Luay al-Musawi said.

Salim al-Tufayly, who says he trains recruits in Babil's provincial capital, Hilla, told RFE/RL that Abnaa al-Karrar's volunteer fighters were being trained over the summer months to defend Shi'ite holy places in Iraq. "This force is composed of a cross-section of young men that will become this province's striking force, God willing," he said. "The force comprises students of all ages."

The volunteer militia is waiting for more volunteers from local universities and institutes who are expected to join the training camp after completing their exams, Musawi added.

RFE/RL spoke to two boys who have volunteered for Abnaa al-Karrar. The boys did not give their ages, but said that they were being trained to "defend Iraq."

"They have been giving us weapons training and how to disassemble weapons, and physical fitness," said one of the boys, Hussein Hadi. "We have been here for five days being trained to defend Iraq."

While the 'Abnaa al-Karrar in Iraq is a new force, Shi'ite militias fighting in Syria have set a precedent for the use of child soldiers. "Recruitment of child soldiers for Shi'a militias has been ongoing for quite some time," says Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and expert on Shi'ite militias who noted the phenomenon in a recent monograph.

Iraq analyst Joel Wing, who writes the Musings On Iraq blog, told RFE/RL that Hashd al-Shaabi's recruitment of children likely reflected manpower shortages. "Despite all the talk about thousands joining Hashd after Sistani's fatwa, many apparently left because they didn't get paid," Wing said. "Kids [are] probably more willing to fight without wages than adults."

There is a similar shortage of fighters among Sunni tribes in Anbar Province, where IS controls as much as 80 percent of the territory.

Wing said that he was not surprised to hear that children were being recruited by Hashd al-Shaabi or Sunni tribes. "Iraq is becoming a militarized society even in KRG [Kurdish regional government] and the south where there is no violence," he said.

Another problem that is likely affecting child recruitment is the sheer proliferation of militias in Iraq.

There are so many militias that it is hard for Baghdad to establish effective control over them, says Christoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "The militias are doing what they want and not responding to command and control measures," Wilcke told RFE/RL.

There are signs that recruitment of child soldiers in Iraq is set to continue, both by IS and by pro-government and anti-IS groups. The battle against IS will likely be very long, increasing the pressure on Sunni tribes and Shi'ite militias to recruit new fighters.

And the UN has warned that new legislation, if passed, would allow children associated with pro-government militias to join a new Iraqi National Guard.

In early March, the Iraqi parliament started a first reading of a new National Guard law set by Iraq's central government. Hailed by Sunni tribal and political leaders as a way to control their own security in combating IS, the National Guard would be a locally based force answerable first to the provincial government and then to the prime minister.

But in its recent report on children in conflict, the UN flagged the draft law as worrying, because it includes exceptions related to the age of recruitment.

And while Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has criticized IS's use of children -- most recently at an international conference on the issue in Baghdad this week -- he has not spoken out against child recruitment by pro-government militias.

"Iraq should treat the issue of child recruitment equally," HRW's Wilcke said. He also called on Iraq to abide by the Optional Protocol To The Convention On The Rights Of The Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which it signed in 2008. The Optional Protocol condemns the recruitment, training, and use of children in hostilities.

The UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors Iraq's compliance with the protocol, said in March that it was "seriously concerned" at Baghdad's "lack of any comprehensive policy and strategy to address increasing child recruitment and involvement in armed conflict."

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena