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Iraqi Line Of Defense Goes Unpaid

Iraqi Shi'ite volunteers who have joined government forces to fight Sunni jihadists from the Islamic State take part in a training session near the southern port city of Basra.

With Islamic State militants encroaching, the Iraqi government cannot afford to see any cracks in its line of defense.

So when newly enlisted civilian volunteers threatened to break ranks, lawmakers were left scrambling to deliver weapons, equipment, and salaries that could keep them in the fight.

When Iraq sounded the call to arms against Islamic State (IS) in June, tens of thousands of civilians signed up to reinforce Iraq's depleted national army and police force on the agreement they would be paid and equipped like existing servicemen.

After months on the front, however, some recruits say they have yet to receive the pay and weapons they were promised.

'We Answered The Call'

One region where the problem has been exposed is Diyala Governorate, which lies northeast of Baghdad and along the border with Iran. Thousands of volunteers have fought alongside government forces there, helping to reclaim areas of the province seized by militants.

According to local councilman Qassim al-Mahmuri, the government promised to pay volunteer fighters between 500,000 and 800,000 dinars ($400-$650) per month, depending on their responsibilities. Volunteers were also promised a 125,000-dinar ($100) food allowance per month and also death benefits should they be killed in service.

Mahmuri says that 6,650 volunteers registered with the Defense and Interior ministries in Baqubah, capital of the governorate. A list of the volunteers was sent to Baghdad so the government could add them to its payroll, but "we have had no response," according to Mahmuri.

Some volunteers who joined the Iraqi Army to fight Islamic State say they've received only a fraction of their pay, while others say their superiors often take a cut of their salaries.
Some volunteers who joined the Iraqi Army to fight Islamic State say they've received only a fraction of their pay, while others say their superiors often take a cut of their salaries.

As a result, some volunteers in Baqubah have gone on strike and refused to fight. On September 26, several dozen volunteers protested outside their camp.

"Volunteers have been martyred and wounded," says one volunteer, speaking on condition of anonymity. He refers to an initial call to arms issued by the country's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which was followed by a promise by then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to compensate those who signed up.

"We answered a call from [Sistani] to register to fight. But we haven't received our salaries," the volunteer says.

Another volunteer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says: "We're supporting our security forces against IS and fighting the terrorists. We ask the government to pay our salaries. We're ready to protect our province."

Majid Jabar, a member of the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, admits that the government has failed to pay the salaries of many volunteers. But he says the issue is being addressed.

Jabar told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that a meeting of the Council of Ministers on September 30 agreed to write up a law that would set the volunteer fighters' rights in stone, and also authorized the delivery of weapons, equipment, and pay.

Same-Old Problems

The precise number of volunteer fighters is unclear. The Iraqi government has said there are about 2 million involved in the fight. But an official close to the recruitment process tells RFE/RL that the real figure is around 150,000, with most registrations coming from Iraq's predominately Shi'ite south.

Whatever the case, analysts stress the important role they are playing in the fight against Islamic State. Sajad Jiyad, a London-based Iraq analyst, says the recruitment of volunteers has given the Iraqi Army and police force "immense momentum" against the militants.

"I wouldn't think that the front-line capabilities of the Iraqi Army would be affected if large numbers of volunteers decided to leave," Jiyad says. "But it would reduce capacity and put a strain on resources. Some of these men have important tasks and roles so for them to walk away suddenly it would become an issue."

The situation in Diyala is not isolated. Dozens of volunteers and Iraqi soldiers and police officers around the country have written letters to RFE/RL over the past few months complaining of not receiving their salaries and suffering shortages of weapons and equipment.

Some write that they have received only a fraction of their pay, while others say their superiors often take a cut of their salaries.

"Corruption and politicization are the two main things that affected the Iraqi Army and we can see some of the same things happening with the volunteer forces, unfortunately," Jiyad says.

"We could see a similar thing to what happened in Mosul [where thousands of soldiers fled after they were confronted by IS militants] -- mass corruption, mass fear, mass retreat, and the collapse of these volunteer forces.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.