BAGHDAD, Iraq — In December 2017, the Iraqi government officially retook territories that had been occupied by the Islamic State (IS) since 2014. One of the most tragic aspects of the conflict carried out in these years was the use of child soldiers, which is rightfully considered a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
List of Top 10 Facts About Iraqi Child Soldiers
- Children have fought on both sides of the conflict: IS and armed opposition groups including the state-affiliated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and independent militias. The Iraqi government has struggled in recent years to enforce legislation prohibiting child-soldiering among some PMF units. And as of 2018, it has yet to hold any members of the PMF criminally accountable.
- Over the course of the conflict in Iraq, both IS and opposition forces have used propaganda featuring child soldiers to encourage other children to become soldiers. In territories under IS control, public, outdoor theaters would screen videos depicting child militants. Posters in Baghdad and Southern Iraq and media outlets connected to PMF celebrated the glorified youth killed in combat, portraying their deaths as brave sacrifices. Messaging on either side evoked similar narratives of martyrdom.
- In southern Iraq, the PMF recruited children by encouraging high school students to participate in military training camps. In northern Iraq, the PKK and an independent militia group recruited girls and boys as young as 12 years old through use of force. In Iraq and elsewhere, IS recruitment methods have ranged from abduction and threat of violence to radicalizing parents so that they instill strong radical sentiments in their children.
- Those living in poverty were most vulnerable to exploitation. From 2015 to 2016, the PMF enlisted impoverished children in Basrah, a district in southern Iraq, with the promise of an income and greater social status. Groups in opposition to the IS targeted children in refugee camps. The IS likewise offered money to parents as an incentive for sending their children to the IS military training camps.
- For the IS, in particular, the integration of children into the military is a calculated strategy meant to ensure that their ideology survives into future generations. The IS believes that these children will grow into jihadist fighters who are purer than their predecessors as they have never been corrupted by secularist ideas. In conditioning children early, the IS hopes to hone the military prowess of future generations.
- The IS strives to normalize violence in territories under its control, as in Iraq before their defeat in 2017. For the purpose of indoctrination, children in these territories also bear witness to public executions and may even be encouraged to hold up severed heads. They are encouraged to play with toy weapons and are exposed to real weaponry early on.
- The education system under the IS serves the same purpose and, therefore, centers around the Islamic State’s teachings of warfare and interpretation of Sharia law. Textbooks incorporate weapons and explosives into their lessons. Math problems use tanks, guns and bombs alongside innocuous items to teach concepts such as addition and subtraction. Children learn physics and chemistry in the context of constructing bombs. In geography, instruction goes only so far as the territories that are under the IS control and the ones that are not. As these children grow, their lessons begin to include weapons training.
- The IS uses children not only as soldiers in combat but also as informants, human shields, executioners, bomb makers and suicide bombers. They may be as young as 8 years old.
- Though to a lesser extent, the IS also uses girls for combat operations. However, girls in the IS territories primarily undergo conditioning meant to mold them into future wives and caretakers of male soldiers. These girls are especially vulnerable to forced marriage, forced domestic work and sexual slavery.
- Last but not least, on the top 10 facts about Iraqi child soldiers, is that since regaining the IS-occupied territory, the Iraqi government’s inadequate procedures for identifying human trafficking victims and referring them to social services keep former child soldiers from receiving the help they need. Many are punished as criminals rather than being treated as victims of human trafficking despite their actions being a result of their circumstances.
Since its liberation in late 2017, conditions in Iraq have improved and the dangers of becoming a victim of human trafficking, such as child-soldiering, have lessened. In spite of this, the U.S. State Department’s 2018 report still puts Iraqi children at high risk. Although the realities depicted in these top 10 facts about Iraqi child soldiers may no longer exist in Iraq to the extent that they once did, they still define the realities of many around the globe. With the help of the international community, there is a chance that these realities may be put to an end.
– Ashley Wagner