Hashd al-Shaabi Militias Recruitment Drive Targeting Schools
Baghdad – Yalla
As thousands of fighters from Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) engage in battles to liberate territories in the country’s north and west from the remnants of ISIL, colleagues in the outer neighbourhoods of the capital Baghdad are busy recruiting high school and college students.
Some of these recruits receive special IDs and vehicles, and while they insist they are not involved in any military operations in Iraq or Syria, they have confirmed to Yalla that they are working with different PMF units.
In November 2016 the Iraqi parliament passed a law legitimising the scores of militia units that compromise the PMF. The units “are hereafter deemed as legal entities that have their own rights and duties as a secondary force, supporting the Iraqi Army.”
During a month of interviews, Yalla learnt that the age of the recruits ranges from 14 to 18, some of whom dropped out of school to access benefits from the PMF. Those who continue their education often benefit from other privileges, such as exemption from sitting exams.
One student recruit, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Some are treated like heroes and legends in their neighbourhoods, and sail through checkpoints using IDs issued to them by their PMF units.”
He added, “We wanted to join the fight against ISIL, but the PMF would not send us to the front lines. Instead, the kept us in our neighbourhoods to work limited duties.”
Interviews revealed that the recruitment drive is most active in Mahmoudia and Diyala Bridge in the south, the eastern areas of Nahrawan, Kamalyia and Obeidy, and Shu’la, Hurryia and Rahmanyia in the west of the city.
Article 4 of the PMF law states: “The dispersal and distribution of forces throughout the governorates is within the authority of the Prime Minister, the Commander in Chief, only.”
On 22 March this year Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi guaranteed his authority over the PMF to the governments of 14 countries involved in the US-led coalition against ISIL: “The PMF law places the fighters under the leadership of the state and its military regulations,” vowing to “hold those who break the law accountable.”
With the PMF playing a significant role in the war against ISIL, crowds have witnessed young men joining up at public events in Baghdad and other provinces. The PMF use social media to recruit volunteers, as long they are between 19 and 25, and hold a middle school diploma.
In reality many of these recruits are 18 or younger, in violation of the law. The PMF appears to be using this expansion as a way of shoring up political support and power in secure areas.
In recent weeks activists have circulated a video clip, which Yalla has been unable to authenticate, showing a group of elementary school students in military uniform, chanting slogans associated with PMF militias.
Senior members of the PMF deny recruiting underage students. Commander Karim Al-Nuri, told Yalla, “The PMF does not need to recruit young students as it already has a large reserve.”
However he believes that “there is nothing wrong with training young students on how to use a weapon,” adding, “all nations train their youth in the use of weaponry and martial arts so they are able to defend their countries.”
One recruit from Mahmoudyia claimed: “A lot of students dropped out of school for the benefits they receive for carrying out certain duties in their respective neighbourhoods.” He would not specify the nature of the duties.
Yalla was told by local residents that the recruits gather intelligence for the PMF.
The Ministry of Planning has conducted surveys of schools on the outskirts of Baghdad, which reveal that 3 out of 4 students are dropping out of education on completing middle school at around 14-years-old.
Student recruits gave different reasons as to why they joined the PMF. Some said they did it to protect themselves from violations committed by some teachers, or to be exempted from taking exams.
Others say they joined up because of the lack of cultural or sporting activities in their neighbourhoods. One student said: “The majority of recruits want the special IDs that enable them to pass through checkpoints easily, which they show off to their peers.”
Deputy Governor of Baghdad Jassem Al-Bkhaty attributes the lack of facilities available to the city’s youth to budget constraints. Speaking to Yalla, Al-Bkhaty said: “There are attempts to bring life back into the sport clubs and venues in outer Baghdad, but current financial problems place them low on the list of priorities.”
“The lack of entertainment and sporting facilities,” Al-Bkhaty acknowledged, “tempts young men in those areas to get involved in crime.” However, he denied any knowledge of the PMF recruiting young students.
Officials from the Department of Education say that tight budgets are not to blame – money has been made available for sport facilities in Baghdad’s outskirts to be turned into shooting ranges and logistic stores for PMF units and the federal police forces.
Yalla has seen reports from school inspectors working for the Ministry of Education which confirm PMF recruitment within several schools in Baghdad. The Ministry has so far refused to comment.
One inspector revealed: “Within the Ministry there is a department of teacher and education inspectors who are involved in the PMF. In areas such as Obeidy, Mahmoudyia, Shu’la, Kamalyia and Nahrawan the recruitment has been taking place in a clear and semiofficial way for more than a year.
“Some of the head teachers involved with the PMF turn a blind eye to the violations, and the government ignores it entirely.”
The recruitment drive raises concerns for the post-ISIL era. In the short term, the PMF have been cleared to stand in the September elections, and 25 militias have submitted lists of candidates across the country. In a time when the government and political powers must establish sustained stability, their work may be compromised by new parties attempting to win legitimate political power.
Iraqi researcher Wisam Ja’afar points to surveys conducted by the Civil Societies Organisation which reveal that armed militias exert the greatest authority in many of the capital’s neighbourhoods, especially those on the outskirts of the city where there are fewer police stations.
Prepared by: Maher Abdul-Latif