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The return of conscription in Iraq

November 17, 2022 at 11:30 am

Iraqi army soldiers on March 18, 2008, northeast of Baghdad, Iraq [Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images]

The status of the army in Iraqi society has always been controversial, with debates about patriotism, the development of the concept of masculinity, serving the flag and such like. Commentators have noted that reintroducing conscription will be a way to weld social groups together in the ranks, where differences, including sectarian and national conflicts that have lasted twenty years, will fade away.

“Moving forward with the military service law,” tweeted the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, “ensures the preparation of a generation of young people who are more capable of facing the difficulties of life; who are familiar with their rights and duties; motivated to preserve the state and its sovereignty; and contribute to strengthening the values, morals, discipline and commitment to national identity.”

Former Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi added, “Today we accomplished what we pledged to do from the moment we assumed responsibility before our people and history by passing the military service law, which will instil national values in our children.”

The irony is that neither Halbousi nor Al-Kadhimi, who are both so enthusiastic about military conscription, have served a single day in the Iraqi army.

Supporters push for conscription in Iraq by saying that the army has been suffering from a lack of balance in its structure ever since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and that the Shia have become dominant. This means that the Shia parties and movements have control over the state and marginalise the Sunni forces in the important military and security institutions. Iraqi Kurds are absent from the army due to the existence of an independent Kurdish force, the Peshmerga.

Those who reject the idea of reintroducing conscription defend their position by saying that the military institution, which was millions-strong during the 1980s war with Iran, has exhausted the country’s wealth and brought nothing but catastrophe to the country as a tool in the hands of an oppressive regime. The army was used in the regime’s wars and the suppression of internal uprisings. Hence, the establishment of a professional army made up of highly-trained personnel is what Iraq needs to defend itself in the face of external threats.

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Sources in military studies centres say that Iraq suffers from too many volunteers and officers, with more than a million soldiers in the various military and security institutions, as well as members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces. “There are 1.2 million security officers in Iraq, distributed across the army, police and Popular Mobilisation Forces, so what is the use of conscription other than to increase the burden on the treasury, give a false ‘solution’ for unemployment, open the door to looting the state’s money, and possibly starting a fruitless war that will achieve nothing but killing the youth?” asked one blogger.

It seems, however, that the Iraqi parliament has raised the issue of conscription with the army. This happened with previous parliaments but was never intended to be introduced. According to the deputy head of the parliamentary security and defence committee, Sakfan Yousef, “The draft conscription bill is ready and it is expected to be sent to the head of the parliament to be read and approved.” He told journalists that the committee has finished preparing the draft bill which will be sent to the speaker to add to the agenda for the next session of parliament. Kareem Shakour MP, a member of the committee, said that the bill is likely to pass into law and be effective two years after being published in the Official Gazette.

Some observers see the new law as another chapter of the corruption that is corroding the Iraqi state at a cost of billions of dollars, at the expense of ordinary Iraqi citizens. Corruption has been rife, with ghost names on the muster. As many as 50,000 non-existent people have, it is alleged, been registered on army payroll lists. The media calls them “aliens”. The blame for this has included the Iraqi army’s retreat in the face of the Daesh terrorist attack in the summer of 2014. How can we trust this current political class and let them force millions of young people into an institution that suffers from many unresolved problems?

Leaks and media statements by Iraqi officials indicate that conscripts will be paid 700,000 Iraqi dinars (about $500). The Iraqi News Agency also published the text of the Military Service Law submitted by the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers, Hamid Al-Ghazi, to Al-Halbousi, in preparation for its adoption. The draft says that military service will range from 18 months to as little as three months, depending on the educational qualifications of the individual. Every male Iraqi who is over 19 years old and under 45 will face conscription, with limited exceptions. Those completing primary school but not beyond will serve 18 months, while the period is reduced to 12 months for those who have been to middle school. The period drops to nine months for graduates of community colleges and institutes in which the study programmes last at least two years. Those with a masters’ degree will serve six months and those with a PhD will serve for three months. It will be possible to pay compensation in lieu of military service, but no amount is specified in the draft. This means that wealthy people will be protected from conscription, which throws into doubt the whole issue of rights and responsibilities for all Iraqi citizens.

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“Compulsory service is a drain on funds, a militarisation of society, and an increase in the crises and problems of Iraq,” commented Essam Al-Faili, a professor of political science at Al-Mustansiriya University. “At the present time, there is no significant use for the infantry, and if it is being used, its members must have a high standard of education in light of the high level of development [of weaponry]. Moreover, if the law is approved and applied in its proposed form, it will deepen class differences, because the rich will not serve after paying the financial alternative, leaving the responsibility for service to the poor.”

Conscription is being seen as a means to develop strong character in young men who will then be capable of coping with life’s challenges in a society facing moral corruption. This view has its critics. Journalist Saleh Al-Hamdani, for example, summed up the opposing view when he tweeted: “If they spend the conscription money on the schools, there would be a generation better than the one before it. As long as there are legislators who think about feeding the army more than they think about the country, the training camp will work against the education received in school.”

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 13 November 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.