Lamyaa Ahmad and Saad Alwarddi
In the region of Karma, at the northern entry to Basra Governorate, a large sign was fixed at the top of a lamp post by ” Al-Montadhar Brigade”, one of the formations of the Popular Front Forces, fighting against the militants of the Islamic Organization ‘ISIS’, in mourning of their hero fighter, Ahmad Ja’low, who had been martyred in defense of his faith and homeland.
Thirty kilometers north of this sign, specifically at the paper mill, another brigade called “Shiite Shield Phalanges” did the same in mourning of their martyr, Ibrahim Beresm, whose photo appeared on a sign, wearing his military uniform and holding a Kalashnikov gun.
Hundreds of similar signs can be seen posted everywhere, in public squares, and on walls of government buildings as well as on blocks of flats, filling the 45-km road extending between the city of Basra and the north part of Adder region. But what specifically distinguishes these two cases is that the two victims are teenagers who have not yet reached the legal age of fighting.
Both Ahmad, 16 years, and Ibrahim, 15 years, are from Basra, the governorate that actually tops the number of deaths among the ranks of the Popular Front Forces, with about 1,000 lives according to statements made by some leadership sources in the front.
Both lads joined the Front’s formations a week after a “Jihad Fatwa” made by the supreme Shiite reference, Ayat Allah Ali Al-Sisstanni on 13 June of last year, to confront the advancement of “ISIS” fighters who had knocked the doors of Baghdad after their domination over the city of Mosul and other large areas from the two governorates of Saladin and Al-Anbar.
And although both the popular Front forces and Iraq’s government officially deny the involvement of children and minors like Ahmad and Ibrahim in dozens of the militant Shiite factions, and seldom acknowledge their training in schools, yet the incessant funerals and mourning in the cities located in the south and central parts of the country confirm beyond any doubt the fall minor victims along the front lines of the battlefield.
On 20 June, 2014, when both Ahmad, and Ibrahim, as well as dozens of the region’s sons joined forces, they started training sessions on the use of arms in camps speedily prepared in Al-Karma and Al-Nashwa areas. These camps were originally dusty spaces used by children to play football.
“They had their training for two running weeks at temperatures exceeding 45 degree. We seldom saw him during that time, because on his return home we find him completely exhausted from the training.” said Ahmad’s mother.
The two lads were transferred to an area unknown to them that is Dujail, in Saladin Governorate, north of Baghdad, which was at that time besieged by “ISIS” organization.
Fate reunited both lads again in the 5th detachment of the 9th brigade formed by the Popular Front, and they regretfully met their ends on the 1st of December, 2014.during an assault waged by “ISIS” fighters against their position.
Ahmad’s mother describes her killed son as ”impetuous’, filled during his last days with strong desire to have a share in fighting against ‘ISIS’. “I could understand his desire, and that is why I didn’t object to his training” she said. But she never thought for a second that her young son would be a fighter in the front lines. “I just thought he would play a role fitting his age and physical abilities perhaps in the administrative units of the Front, or at least in locations far from the front lines.”
This lad’s mother puts all the blame on the mass media and religious parties who have aroused youth enthusiasm after the announcement of the ‘Jihad Fatwa’ by the Shiite reference. She says that official TV channels and others run by the religious parties “inflamed the youngsters’ chests without any consideration to their age or their physical or combat potentials.”
Just like Ibrahim’s mother, Ahmad’s mother could not have a last look at the dead body of her son. Army forces returned what remained from both dead bodies five months after the battle, after they managed to drive “ISIS” away from Al-Nabaee region, Dugail province. However, the mother was present at the final ceremonial funeral rituals arranged for the ‘ Front’s martyrs’ at Waddy Al- Salaam graveyard in Najaf, and watched at a distance the two coffins wrapped in Iraq’s flag and carried on shoulders around the shrine, with its golden domes and minarets.
Parties exploited ‘Jihad Fatwa’
The Fatwa’ announced by Al-Sayed Seestanni one hundred years after the old anti-imperialism ‘Jihad Fatwa’ , has had its deep impact on pushing Muslim believers into volunteering, particularly after it had won the blessings of the senior well-known references, namely Ayat Allah, Basheer Al-Najaffi, Isaac Al-Fayadh, Mohammed Taqi Al-Madrassy, Mohammed Sa’eid Al-Hakeem. Only one controversial cleric objected it, namely Mahmoud Al-Sarrkhy, who regarded it as the ‘beginning of a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites’.
The text of the ‘Fatwa’ contains no details, particularly about who should participate in fighting, but otherwise confined it to ‘anyone able to carry a firearm’. In the course of declaring the ‘Jihad Fatwa’ from inside Al-Emam Al-Hussein Shrine in the central part of Karbalaa,
Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Al-Kurblaee said, “The number required to defend Iraq should be effectively enough; if 10,000 fighters cannot achieve the goal, their number goes up to 11,000 and so on until at the end of the day the number sufficiency is achieved.”.
But later on, a clarification was issued by Al-Seestanni office, exactly on June 14, 2014. It was televised by Iraq’s official satellite channel ‘Al-Iraqeya’ and stated that civil servants are not in any way entrusted with the fatwa sufficiency duty, unless it is necessary.”
Mohammed Jafar Al-Sawaad, a journalist, thinks that the sufficiency Jihad fatwa was exploited by some Shiite parties engaged in competing for power, authority and money so as to gain more popularity and expand its popular base. He said, ” Those parties welcomed the indiscriminate recruitment of civil servants, students and young volunteers, and anyone coming to their recruitment offices, simply because they wanted to gain more and more power and enlarge their basis, in addition to obtaining more and more financial support from the state.”
On the other hand, Al-Sawaad points out that after the declaration of the ‘fatwa’, the Shiite reference issued a series of directives in an effort to put an end to the chaotic state that was widespread at that time, including its support to the draft law of the ‘national guards’, with the objective of forming a security force expected to include irregular fighters from amongst both Shiite factions and Sunni tribes, who will all operate under the state’s umbrella.
Arms, Power and Pride
Since 13 June of last year, the Shiite parties have started to share authority with the other Kurdish and Sunni parties, and in atmospheres of a ‘fateful war’ they began to form factions and receive volunteers in their offices, even though some factions such as ‘Assaeb Ahl Al-Haq’ had actually declared themselves even before the fatwa announcement. That came after the breakout of the ongoing war in Syria, whereas some other parties had actually played an influential role in the years of civil war.
The call for volunteering was based on a number of religious slogans and revival of old ideological heritage, which constituted the most prominent factor the armed factions exploited in their attraction of volunteers. Banners of over forty factions, all carrying names of sectarian indications, were seen hoisted high in Baghdad and in other southern governorates, the number of their fighters have reached, according to official statements, as high as 165,000 fighters, 100,000 of whom are getting paid by the state.
Other motives were also present, since volunteering was regarded by many teenagers and youth as an opportunity to prove themselves in a society where the power of arms imposes itself socially while protecting its security. To them, the mere carrying of a gun is a sign of manhood and reason for pride.
On the other hand, the Popular Front formations are reluctant to give any information about the number of volunteering children. They officially deny their mere presence on the front lines of the battlefields, with some very rare exceptions when scattering statements are made by them about training children on how to protect their neighborhoods in the event of any expected attack.
However, an officer in “Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Brigade”, affiliated to the Popular Front, feels proud that his faction was the first formation to embrace young fighters among its ranks. He said, “We have martyrs in the brigade not exceeding 15 years of age”. He sees that the participation of children in the fight is a duty to follow the footsteps of Al-Imam Al-Hussein and his kids who took part in the Karbala Battle in the year 61 A.H. and were honored by martyrdom.
The Popular Front does not actually constitute a homogenous military entity, contrary to what is being circulated by the media, a state of affairs that leads to the flare up of a fierce competition among its factions over winning the loyalty of Iraqi Shiites, in addition to the existence of other profound differences among them, in terms of their various ideological belongingness and political objectives and above all the powers providing them with money and weaponry.
Mohammed Moussa Al-Zeidi, a researcher, divides the Front forces into three main groups, having dissimilar behaviors in recruiting children; the first of which is pro-Iran, whose most prominent factions are “Badr Corps” under the leadership of Haddi Al-Amrry, “Assaeb Ahl Al-Haq’ (leagues of the righteous Muslims), headed by Qaiss Al- Khaz Ali, “Hezbo Allah Phalanges” led by Abu Mahddi Al Mohandes, ” Al-Kharassani’s Detachments”, “Al-Nojabaa” both headed by Akram Al-Kaaby,” and “Phalanges of Al-Tayaar Al-Resally (phalanges of religious message current), with Adnan Al-Shahmanny at its head.
Al-Zeidi points out that pro-Iran group is the strongest as regard matters of armament, organization and training, not to mention its most influential role in fighting “ISIS”. Meanwhile, it has its own future political ambitions, seeking to have its own private treatment independent of Iraq’s army. That is why, it spares no effort to expand its base and recruit the largest possible number of volunteers, including teenagers who receive the highest salaries compared with other formations.
The second group of factions, according to the Iraqi researcher, is the one loyal to the traditional Shiite parties, the most significant of which are:
“Sarraya Al-Salaam” (Peace Detachments), affiliated to Al-Saddrri current, “Jihad and Construction Detachments”, “Ashurraa Detachments, “Pro- Aquida Detachments”, all affiliated to the Supreme Council, “Detachments of Haideri Rage”, and faction of ” Mission Youth Brigade”, affiliated to the “Virtue Party”. He said.
“All such factions participate in a limited extent in the fighting and rely on the government for the supply of their weaponry, which is usually limited. “Many cases of recruiting minors within their ranks have been monitored, but with lesser numbers than that of the first group.”, said the researcher.
“The last of the three groups is loyal to the “Seestanni Reference”, and was formed in the wake of the announcement of the” Sufficing Jihad Fatwa” (based on recruiting the numbers sufficient for facing any attackers), and his office and representatives supervised their establishments. The most prominent branches of this group are:
Ali Al-Akbar Brigade”, Sarraya of Al-Attaba Al-Abbasseya” (Detachments of Abbaseya Threshold), ” Sarraya Al-Attaba Al- Elweya” (Detachments of Upper Threshold), ” Sarraya Al-Attaba Al-Husseineya” (Detachments of Hussein’s Threshold), “Kataa’eb Sayed Al-Shuhadaa” (Battalions of Martyrs’ Master), and “Movement of Sincere Allah Believers”. He said.
” Such factions do not actually have any political ambitions, and placed themselves under the authority of the government, and are distinguished by their non-presence in the media, large number of fighters, and lack of arms; and we can hardly find children or teenagers among their ranks.”, the researcher said.
Al-Zeidi sees that the major aim of the polarization of adolescents by some factions is nothing but propaganda, in view of the fact that they have enough number of adult men. “Their presence is a mere symbolic evidence of the profound loyalty they gain from the street, in addition to gaining a propaganda element so as to urge grown-ups to volunteer. Something that is quite apparent in the films screened by these factions who feel proud of the young ages of their fighters and the number of martyrs amongst them.”. He said.
“I’ll die before you”
Even though the “Sufficing Jihad ” stipulated in the Shiite reference ‘Fatwa’, is not comprehensively or publicly compulsory, neither does it require others to recruit enough numbers of volunteers, yet several families looked upon that matter as obligatory to all their male members. That what exactly happened with Jaleel Abdul Haddy, 52 years of age, a retiree from the western part of Karbala who said, ” He fears the wrath of Allah if he does not allow his four kids from joining fighting, two of whom are between 15 and 17 years of age…”. He goes on saying, “Even if I dare to prevent them, they will not listen to me and choose to answer the call for recruitment.”
Some Videos posted on the Youtube show how young fighters are sharing in the battles fought in some areas north and west of Iraq. Other adults post their photos while in action on their personal Facebook accounts . Meanwhile, some satellite channels, including the state owned channel “Al Iraqeya” do not hesitate to screen stories of fighters in their teens, fighting side by side with the Front ranks.
At Al Fadhayleya, affiliated to Souk Al-Sheyoukh province, in Zee Qar Governorate, 350 km south of the capital Baghdad, there lives Abu Ali family, who gives a clear-cut example of how the rhetoric used by the religious parties has its profound impact on him. Besides the father, 38 years of age, his son aging only 15 years, joined the battalions of ‘Iraq’s ‘Hizbu Allah’.
Abu Ali, who was seriously injured in a battle fought in Biji Refinery in mid May, 2015, believes that he follows the footsteps of the Shiite sect Imams, in permitting his minor son to fight side by side with him, yet his teary eyes show how much he misses his late elder son, who had been killed in a bomb explosion in Takreet, in April, 2015.
Abu Ali recalls human situations combining them in the battlefields, where the son chose not to be far away from his father. “He was kidding with me, saying, ” I’ll be killed before you dad, as I cannot in any way bear the responsibility of the family after you.” The father repeated that same phrase to us twice, before breaking into tears.
Duty of Obedience
Despite media blackout, it is easy to monitor repeated cases of children fighting side by side in the battlefield with their fathers in the southern and central Iraq’s governorates.
At Al-Melaad, one of the poor neighborhoods, at the northern entry to Najaf city, 160 km south of the capital Baghdad, there in a modest house not exceeding 100 square meters, lives a woman with her five-member family, three girls and two boys, after losing two members of her family; the head of the family, 43 years of age, and his son Karar, 16 years. They both joined the ranks of “Al-Salaam Detachments’ affiliated to “Al-Sadhr Current”, and had been killed in armed clashes that broke out within Falouja, in Al-Anbar Governorate.
Kara’s mother was not much welcoming the idea of her son’s participation in the battles. “My son was young, not heavy in weight, unable to fight in wars or face its difficulties.” It seems that her deceased husband managed to convince her by reciting the story of the well-known historical Karbala Battle, when youngsters fought side by side with Imam Hussein.
However, Krar’s mother sticks to her belief that ‘Obeying religious reference is a sacred duty’, and she can still realize her spouse’s will, and how he was driven hard by his desire to protect his Shiite family from the knives of ‘ISIS’, threatening to slaughter them.
Search of missing self-esteem amidst devastation, panic, and advancing enemy
In mid June 2014, Iraq’s rulers woke up finding themselves overpowered with a series of military defeats, taking the fragile country with its security, administrative and political institutions to the edge of an abyss, due to the menace posed by the armies of the Islamic State at the western and northern parts of the country.
And whereas neither Baghdad, nor any other capital in the whole world can absorb such speedy fall of cities into the hands of “ISIS”. And while stumbling efforts were made to set up defense lines around Baghdad, Karkuk and Samaria, the ‘Sufficing Jihad Fatwa’ was announced by Najaf Reference to stop any downfall of the capital Baghdad and the other southern Shiite cities through the formation of popular defense forces, that was later on known as the ‘Popular Front’.
Mohammed Al-Amir, a journalist witnessing that period, said, ” The shock was massive, and horror paralyzed the whole country, and almost all concerned security, and political decision-making circles seemed to be stumbling. Nobody knew the way out of this dilemma, until the reference ‘Fatwa’ came to light “.
He added, “In the wake of the ‘Fatwa’ you can find in each and every Shiite household a number of volunteers, young and old alike, all gathering in a matter of hours in schools, public squares, and parties’ headquarters. Volunteering offices which were opened without any previous planning, failed to absorb their large numbers or register their names.”
Al-Amir points out that the message coming from both Tal Afar and Mosul was crystal clear. ” Any Shiite over 13 years of age will be threatened with death at the hands of ‘ISIS’, a state of affairs that made that large numbers of volunteers, with teenagers at the forefront.
It was evident that both the state and its establishments were not in any way qualified to arrange the speedy arrangement of the Front forces, in addition to the fast collapse of almost all the regular army sectors, neither have they a clear-cut vision of what can be done, and accordingly they left the whole matter in the hands of the armed parties’ organizations.
Consequently, the Front forces were not subjugated to any legal controls that can organize its operation or set the necessary recruitment requirements. “In such a state of affairs, it was natural for youngsters to get involved with their ranks”, said Sheikh Jawad Al-Kananni, one of the factions’ leaders of the ‘Popular Front’, exactly from “Ahl Al-Haq Faction” (Right Advocates).
Al-Kenanni, 49 years of age, who had personally supervised the recruitment of hundreds of fighters including minors, at the office of the armed movement to which he belongs in the Saddr city, said, ‘My role was firstly confined to facilitating their enrollment within the battle fronts without caring about their training or preparation, to the degree that some of them brought their own personal arms with them due to our lack of enough weaponry.”
Al-Kananni justifies accepting applications for the recruitment of under-legal- age volunteers by saying, “The country was experiencing a serious chaotic state after the collapse of the army and the reluctance of the world community to support Iraq under the regime of Nourri Al-Malki, the former prime minister, and the fragmentation of the political elite.”
The man, who was one of the early responders to the ‘Jihad Fatwa’ in Saddr City, said, ” Recruitment was governed by interim considerations imposed by unexpected force majeure circumstances, that is why volunteers were randomly received without paying due attention to their age.”
Anti- Children Recruitment Laws
There is actually no legal text or legislation according to which the Popularmass Formation could act. The prime cover under which all the different faction formations operate is the Fatwa (Islamic opinion to get involved in war motivated by faith).
Riyadh Jabarra Al- Bahadlli, a researcher in international law from Karbala, once said that Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haidar Al-Abaddi, attempted twice to subjugate themass to the state’s authority, but he failed; firstly through the draft law of ‘National Guards’ which is an official security establishment supposed to include irregular fighters of both Sunnis and Shiites, with the aim of distancing the leverage of faction leaders and Sheikhs of tribes. His second failure was on 10 April, 2015, when he tried to subjugate themass factions to the martial penal law which is only applicable to those exceeding 18 years of age.
And according to the same researcher, themass forces commit ‘ a clear-cut violation’ against both Iraq’s law and international covenants, through their recruitment of minors. On one hand, Iraq’s martial service and retirement law No (3) of 2010 stipulates 18 years as a minimum age requirement for volunteers, whereas another compulsory military service law No (65) of 1969 confines military service for males completing 19 years of age.
On the other hand, international covenants are not different from Iraq’s law in this respect, in view of the fact that the volitional protocol
of the agreement of children’s rights in terms of the involvement of children in armed disputes (No 182 of 1999) stipulates “prohibition of coercive or compulsory recruitment of children for using them in armed disputes.”, rating anyone under 18 years under the childhood age, unless local laws stipulate otherwise.
Volunteers, with no coercion
Hence, Sheikh Jawad Al-Kenani says, “I think there is no rejection to recruiting young volunteers so long as this is not graded as coercive recruitment…. Such volunteers are willing to fight without being forced to do so. Dozens of them had voluntarily volunteered in Baghdad’s city of Sadr in June last year without any coercion.”
Abbas Juma, 16 years, was one of the volunteers coming to register at Sheikh Kenani Office and later in July 2014 he joined the fighters of ” Saraya Ansar Al-Aquida” (Pro- Faith Brigade) in Anbar, before its fall into the hands of ISIS, a state of affairs that then prompted the Iraqi government to hasten dispatching hundreds of volunteers to bolster the steadfastness of the military sectors there.”
However, Abbas had only stayed a couple of days there before being shot down by a sniper, and carried back wrapped in Iraq’s flag in a wooden casket to Wadi Alsalam Cemetery, Najaf.
Most Dangerous Battles
Abbas had not been appropriately trained on the use of weaponry, like most young volunteers, as stated by their own families. In the best cases, it was sufficient for the platoons to give them speedy training sessions in which they were trained on assembling and disassembling Kalashnikov 7.62 mm guns besides being exercised on aiming, shooting, deployment, and taking cover in the course of confrontations.
Retired Colonel Ahmed Abdul Hussein, 65 years, known to have been participating in the various Iraq’s wars in the 70’s of the last century and who is now working as a trainer in the popularmass camps where students are trained in Dhi Qar, admits that getting young children involved in the ongoing war is something ‘extremely serious’, since we are undergoing guerilla warfare and city battles that are regarded as the most perilous complicated fights.
However, Abdul Hussein himself is involved in training children on the use of arms and when asked why, he said, “The circumstances of the ongoing war give us no other option”.
The report interviewers reviewed a list of 58 lads, all under the age 0f 18 years, who had received training in Suq al- Alshayokh camps, where Abdul Hussein operates since June 2014, and at least 20 of them met their ends in the various battlefield areas against ISIS. Such training was carried out in empty spaces which Abdul Hussein himself with all his military experience declines to call them ‘camps’, being in short of any appropriate prerequisites.
No official statistics of the number of victims in the ranks of the popularmass is available yet. Meanwhile, the factions badly depleted within themass are reluctant to talk about the death toll.
However, Jawad Al Taee, 36 years of age, who is a burier of Al Najaf Cemetery, the main burial place for Shiite Muslims in Iraq said that the cemetery receives about 10 martyrs daily from the different battlefields, but this number at times rises when battles escalate. He elaborated that the death toll exceeded 4000 martyrs since the announcement of the Jihad Fatwa (a Muslim opinion to get engaged in war for Islam)
Such estimation is supported by another burier called Abdul Amir Hussein Abu Aseybaa, who, being a grave digger, confirms that at least 1 in 10 deaths buried is either a child or adolescent, referring that the number was much higher in the first five months following the Fatwa due to the widespread chaotic state at that time.
Concerning Sunnis, it is rather hard to estimate the number of their deaths due to the fact that they are buried elsewhere in several other private graveyards of their own such as that of Al Hassan Al-Basri, in Qadaa al-Zubair, Basra.
Revenge or Shame
In addition to lack of training, most of the popularmass fighters lack the appropriate armament that enables them to confront ISIS fighters. According to some sources, themass elements were initially armed with Kalashnikov guns, “PKC” medium-range machine guns, and RPJ -7 launchers, whereas ISIS possesses heavy long-range machine guns which have inflicted heavy losses in lives amongst the popularmass faction at its very beginning.
Meanwhile, some of themass elements purchased better weaponry at their own expense. In the area of Uzeer, which is affiliated to the Governorate of Missan, 380 km south of the capital Baghdad, lives the family of Lazem Yehia Soayjel, one of the fighters of the ‘Shiite Shield’ faction, who was killed in April 2015 at Alam area in the Governorate of Saladin during the fierce battles fought by the faction against ISIS.
Uzair is considered a countryside area situated on the western bank of Tigris River, where the shrine of Uzair Prophet or Azra Bin Sherba is located in its midst. Its inhabitants are governed by strict tribal traditions and most often this spot and its surrounding areas witness armed conflicts between the tribes who are used to possessing various types of light and medium arms.
After the murder of his father, Abdullah Lazem Yehia Souayjel, a 15-year old boy, joined one of the popularmass factions called “Jund Al-Emam” to fight ISIS militants and take revenge on them by killing as many of their elements as possible in Falluja which was then besieged by both Iraqi forces and popularmass fighters.
Abdullah was trained for a few days on the use of light weapons, but he actually thinks he is in no need of such training, since he possesses within doors two Kalashnikov guns and a medium-range machine gun and he knows quite well how to use them and how to deal with a 60 mm mortar gun, many of which are owned by his clan and are occasionally used in tribal disputes. With an adult-like coarse voice, Abdullah swears by Prophet Uzair that he would fight and kill in revenge of his father’s death. “Any reluctance to act so will bring me and my clan lifelong shame.” He said.
In the course of his participation in the International Conference held last June to curb ISIS recruitment of children, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abaadi, addressed the audience saying, “This conference conveys a message to all countries worldwide to pay attention to the seriousness to the phenomenon of children recruitment’. He added, “Childhood is a blank page that must not be manipulated in bloodshed, slaughter or bombing.” However, Al Abaadi gave no mention to the recruitment of children by the popularmass faction which is officially acknowledged by his own government, in spite of the risks befallen all vulnerable children are almost the same, with a slight difference in the nature of recruitment and its mechanisms.
The official government position towards this phenomenon remains denial, and it is the same official position taken by the popularmass factions. Kareem Al Nourri, spokesman for these factions says, “We are not suffering from any shortage in the number of adult fighters, neither are we perpetrating any suicidal operations to recruit children within our ranks.” However, Al Nurri did not rule out the involvement of some minors in battles ‘ taking advantage of the chaos that followed the downfall of Mosul’, but this will be ‘very limited’.
Bayrak Al Ibraheemi (an alias), manager of a non-governmental organization for human rights in Najaf says, “Iraq’s government is required to stick to the local and international laws and to the criteria that prohibit the recruitment of children.” Al Ebraheemi, who asked not to be identified for fear of his safety said that the civil organizations in Iraq dread criticizing themass , regarding such an act as one of the ‘red lines that many cannot dare to cross’, while the country is experiencing edgy conditions as a consequence of the overwhelming sectarian sensations.
Al Ebraheemi said, “Anyone slamming the recruitment of children publicly will expose himelf to the rage of the popularmass factions who will consider him anti ‘Jihadism’ , and that in his view what makes the local media shut their eyes to such phenomenon.
Choice between Jihad and Study
In the course of his Friday sermon on June 5, 2015, Ahmad Al Saffi, who adopts the Sistani reference, called on the students to get engaged in weapon training sessions. That was an open public invitation extended within the context of taking good advantage of the summer vacation while getting ready to confront the danger of terrorist groups that continued their expansion. A few days later, the militant factions kept their doors wide open for receiving hundreds of students for training.
Researcher Mohamed Mussa Al Zaidi explains that factions most often take advantage of the ambiguity overshadowing some of the directives issued by the Shiite reference, which inclined to avert getting involved in details, for instance they did not prohibit the recruitment of children, neither did they allow it, a state of affairs that created a favorable atmosphere for the militant formations to recruit children regardless of the age requirement.
In June, 2015, Al Razaza Camp, situating 30 km west of Karbala, received around 600 students from different schools, intermediate institutes, and universities in a couple of batches forming two training sessions. A year or so earlier, that same camp was allocated to train themass factions at the hands of professional trainers from Lebanon and Iran.
Their daily training schedule starts at 04:00 am to 04:00 pm with 3-hour break in between, whereas the remaining hours are distributed between sporting exercises and other tactical and practical lessons on the use of some types of small and medium firearms.
In the course of their training, many students ranging between 15-23 years of age unhesitatingly expressed their readiness to join the war against “ISIS”, if necessary. A number of students had actually done so.
Ahmad Abdul Abbas, 19 years, said that he had decided to join Abu Al-Fadhl 9th Brigade affiliated to the Popularmass faction stationed at Baiji in Saladin Governorate after completing his training session at Razaza Camp. The reason behind his decision as stated by Ahmad is to fight “ISIS” being considered by him as an enemy posing a serious threat to the city of Karbala and its sacred shrines.
However, this does not mean the absence of other reasons behind his decision to fight such as his inability to undergo his study successfully enough in addition to the poverty from which his family suffers while living in a modest home in one of the slum neighborhoods in Al-Nasr district area south of Karbala. He considers the salary amounting to 750,000 dinar, equivalent to $ 750, the popularmass elements receive is very important for the support of his family. “Jihad is prior to study. It wins me both God’s and parents’ satisfaction”, Ahmad says.
Meanwhile, the faction elements enjoy other privileges besides their paid salaries. This is because some local governments initiated distributing residential lands and money amounts among the families of both victims and wounded… Last May, the Local Council of Karbala Governorate distributed 10,000,000 Iraqi dinars, equivalent to around 8000 US dollars, among each of the family victims while allocating 5,000,000 Iraqi dinar to the family of each injured recruit.
The size of such privileges and how fast they are obtained are all dependent on the power of each armed faction and its proximity to the influential Shiite parties and the extent of external support they receive from abroad.
Farris Sabah, a 15 – year old son of an employee working with the Educational Directorate of Dhi Qar, lives with his 8- member family in a quite modest home in Suq Al-Sheiyokh area. He says that his father’s salary is not enough to satisfy their basic family needs, a poor state of affairs that obliges his parent to send him together with his brother Hassan, 17 years, to volunteer with ‘Zulfkar Regiment’ and join their uncle fighting there.
Farris, whom we met wearing his military uniform and sunglasses hiding his facial boyish looks, says, “At the very beginning I was unwilling to volunteer, I just wanted to help my parent, but today I’m very proud and thankful to Allah. Everyone looks at me with much respect and appreciation. My friends deal with me as if I were older than them.”
Likewise the case of this lad, we find that the need for money as well as the social appreciation are the most significant factors pushing teenagers to volunteer, according to what was stated by researcher Mohamed Moussa Al-Zaidi.
The Iraqi researcher explains that paucity and poverty in Iraq’s southern governorates and Baghdad’s margins cause hundreds of teenagers and adolescents to get a job. “And most often pro-Iran Shiite factions could attract their attention, simply because they enjoy financial influence and pay ceaseless salaries, whereas salaries due for other references and traditional parties and movements cease for months.”
” Whatever the faction might be and no matter what its political background is, the social status remains the major motive to polarize fighters….” This what explains their being within themass ranks even when they at times stop receiving their salaries for three or four running months, not to mention their belief in the heavenly blessedness of what they’re doing.”.
Many of the youngsters dropped out of school and preferred to join the popularmass ranks, amongst them was, Murtadha Qassem , 16 years of age, who had volunteered a few days after the declaration of Jihad Fatwa, and got quickly involved in the battles, before he was killed in one of the combats west of Iraq.
Many others absented themselves from their exams and joined themass ranks, even though the Ministry of Education enabled them to take their exams at later stage. They preferred resuming fighting to following their study, a state of affairs that not only affected the educational future of the volunteers, but it has its impact on the educational process as a whole.
In a press statement released last April, Iraq’s Minister of Education, Mohammed Iqbal, declared, ” The ministry decided to allow all displaced pupils and students, together with members of the popularmass and other detainees who fail to attend their classes regularly – allow them to take second session exams, regarding such as first session for them.”. A statement that gives clear cut indication to the magnitude of confusion inflicted on the education sector owing to the ongoing war.
In addition to such disorder, there appears an obvious decline in students’ due interest in learning and their undeserved success, according to what was said by Mr. Abbas Jawad, one of the teaching staff cadres in Karbala, 100 km south west of the capital Baghdad. Who’s quoted as sayng “Most students who joined themass passed with the help of their teachers and their success is actually undeserved.”
Meanwhile, Jawad referred warningly to the decline in the rate of the results of this year’s exam in his governorate, due to the consequences of war and the students’ joining with the militant factions. Karbala occupied the 11th rank as to the pass rate of the scientific section students in the academic year 2014/2015, whereas the literary section occupied the 8th rank, after having been taking the leading ranks in the previous years.
Expansion of Cemetery
Despite the undeclared support by some armed factions and media blackout, the process of teenagers’ recruitment within the popularmass ranks has become a worrying phenomenon for the researchers who keep on warning against its dire consequences.
Raed al-Waelee, Director of the Human Resources Department in ‘Ahdaf’, one of civil societal Organizations, says, “Iraq is actually losing the potentials of its children and youth, a state of affairs that is increasingly escalating. He appeals on the government to instantly cease recruiting children and reorganize the recruitment process within themass ranks in a transparent way.”
He referred to some cases where recruitment was even carried out without families’ knowledge. That what happened to Abbas Al Khafaji, 17 years, who joined the “Master of Martyrs Battalion” in Karbala. His family did not know that he had joined the popularmass ranks until they received his dead body. Late Abbas was justifying his absence from home by claiming to be working with a restaurant in Baghdad.
Through his follow up of the situation, Al-Waelee points out that the factions and some of the TV channels affiliated to them have recently started to change the age of their young fighters when appearing on TV screens and social media outlets to avert being slammed. He cites the story of a young victim from the city of Karbala who was killed at the age of 16. When being eulogized on Youtube by the faction recruiting him, they rose his age to 19.
Amer Al Jabourri, a psychiatrist, assures that the involvement of youngsters in wars has its serious consequences both on their behaviors and social upbringing, something that might drive such tenagers to take killing as a profession in the future.
He refers that militant factions in the different countries witnessing disputes, tend to polarize children who had lost their parents and families, exploiting the revenge tendency that might have been inborn in them. He goes on saying, “Such factions realize that youngsters have not yet tested or comprehended the political or the sectarian positions, and can consequently be easily persuaded. Hence, the new generation of the youngsters and adolescents become extra stringent and hateful to the older generation.”
And as children and adolescents keep on getting involved in such armed formations, dead bodies will not cease being poured into the city of Najaf upper graveyard, where coffins are being carried around the shrine seeking holy blessings before being eventually taken to the neighboring cemetery of Wadi Al-Salam (Valley of Peace), the second largest graveyard in the world, to be buried in the presence of armed factions’ representatives.
Each and every militia specified a burial place for its deceased affiliates, so that the milestones and photos of victims appear lined in a precise harmony, including many of deceased youngsters, some of whom were pushed by their jealousy of their faith and ideology, as in the case of Ahmad Jalaw, Ibrahim Brism and others who seem to have found in weapons a speedy way to self-realization or family support as in the cases of Abdullah Sahbal, Ahmad Abdul Abbas and other victims, whereas some others just wanted to be close to their fathers in the battlefield as in the cases of Ali and Qarar.
Yet, whatever the motives might be, and under the influence of overwhelming war sensations of violence and hatred, any opportunity to cease such blood attrition seems inaccessibly remote, so does any chance to get such children back to the playing yards and class seats, so long as war is still escalating while harvesting more and more lives and threatening to extend to new areas.
Prominent names of the factions fighting within the ranks of the popular mass: Peace Brigades of the Sadrist, Badr Organization (military wing), Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Sraya aljihad wa albina’, Kata’ib Altayar Alrisali, Saraya al-Khorasani, Saraya Ashura, Saraya Al-atabat, Failaq Al-wa’d Al-sadiq,Liwa Assad Allah Al-galib, Kata’ib Ansar al-Hijja, LiwaAl-qariaa, Saraya Al Zahra, araya Ansaar Al aqeeda, Kata’b al Ghadab, Harakat al Abdal, Liwa al Muntazar, Kata’b Dir’ al Shi’a, Jaish al Mukhtar, and Hezbollah al Tha’run.
Videos show children and adolescents in the ranks of the popular mass: