Saturday, 12 July 2014 20:15

Child soldiers among Shiite 'volunteers', officials deny

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The video on his phone shows the boy firing a heavy machine gun mounted on a tripod through a hole in a crumbling building, his slender body shaking from the kickback.

“We were kind of nervous, because we are cowards, and it was our first fight and we were still young," said the youth, a former teen soccer star from Baghdad.

He says he was 14 when an Iraqi Shiite militia first sent him to Iran for training by the Revolutionary Guards in hills outside of Tehran in March. He spent last four months in Syria fighting on the frontline near Damascus.

Now, he says he is back in Iraq fighting against Sunni tribal revolutionaries.

"We got some military experience in Syria with raiding, and skills we learned in Syria help us in Samarra," he said, referring to a frontline Iraqi city where Shiite volunteers helped government forces halt an advance by the revolutionaries.

No one knows for certain how many underage fighters are participating in Maliki's war against Iraq's Sunnis. The official recruitment age for Iraq's army is 18. Shiite militias which fight alongside government force also say they do not recruit children.

But with Sunni surge sweeping across the country, thousands of Shiites answering a cleric's call to take up arms against them, there is anecdotal evidence that child fighters are being sucked into ongoing Maliki's war against Iraq's Sunnis.

Witnesses say they have frequently seen adolescents among the Shiite fighters at checkpoints in and around Baghdad.

The Shiite youth, who spoke to reporters in Baghdad during what he described as a few days respite from the battlefield in Samarra to visit his family, says he was drawn to the war to save his fellow Shiites from the Sunni armed groups that say - as he claimed - all Shiites are heretics who must repent or die.

His name is not being printed to protect his identity. Reporters were not able to see documents to verify his age, but if anything he looked even younger than 15. His parents declined to be interviewed.

The Badr Organization, a Shiite group which the youth said recruited him, but a senior member of the Organization denies it fields underage fighters.

The office of the outgoing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the government demanded that paramilitary groups refrain from recruiting children: "The government has been clear that volunteers should be of adult age."

"HE WENT TO SAMARRA TO HELP HALT THE REVOLUTIONARIES ADVANCE"

When he returned to Iraq, he went to Samarra to help halt the revolutionaries advance on Baghdad.

At the front, he worked as a member of a patrol helping to round up Sunnis suspected of aiding the revolutionaries.

"I find Sunnis shepherds. I interrogate them then I hand them over to my commanders," he said.

He showed reporters a video on his phone of him and a fellow fighter questioning two men wearing traditional robes sitting on the ground. He said they later turned the men over to his commander .

Outside Samarra there was a close call when Iraqi federal police backing his paramilitary unit fled mid-battle, leaving the fighters exposed. The youth said that showed why volunteers are easy to be killed: "We fight without a military support, the government security members are looking only for their salaries."

"SURPRISED HOW YOUNG THESE GUYS WERE"

Two fighters from the Iran-trained Kata'ib Hezbollah and the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades that have also sent thousands of volunteers to Syria told reporters they attended training this month in Baghdad with boys turning 15 or 16.

"I was surprised how young these guys were," said a 19-year-old Kata'ib Hezbollah member, who asked for his name not to be used in order to speak freely. "They didn’t know how to load a magazine or shoot their gun. I asked and they told me they were born in 1998 and 1999.”

An 18-year-old fighter who joined the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades said he attended training at the Taji military camp in northern Baghdad, a current Defense Ministry-run training site. He said there were younger teenagers there, some of whom he believed would be sent to the battlefield with inadequate training.

"The younger guys don't know how to fight," he told reporters about the teenagers at his training camp.

"SIGNING UP ALL AGES; IT IS A RELIGIOUS DUTY"

Iraq is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on governments to shield children younger than 15 from participating in combat. It is not easy to find evidence of fighters that young, although there was substantial evidence of fighters close to that age and below Iraq's official recruitment age of 18.

Although the government says it takes steps to keep underage fighters out of the fray, and the Badr Organization says that it does not accept them, at a neighborhood office one Badr recruiter said that in such urgent circumstances he was taking applications from volunteers of all ages.

Sifting through forms, he said he had collected about 7,000 applications to join the battle since Shia marja in Najaf, Ali Sistani, issued a fatwa on June 13 calling on Shiites to mobilize and fight against Sunni tribal revolutionaries.

"We are signing up all ages, even women. We don't reject anyone because the current critical situation" he said. Asked if he had come across fighters as young as 16, he said: "Yes, and also boys younger than that. Some are still in training, and some have already taken part in the fight."

The recruiter said Iraq was in no position to abide by rules banning the recruitment of child soldiers.

"In other countries, maybe you observe this international law because you are not in this state of war. But now the country is in danger and there is a Sistani's fatwa, so the fight has become a religious duty."

Asked if he had sons and whether he would allow them to fight, the recruiter said: "They are too young," he replied. "Three and six years old. But I will put down their names."

Across town, the Baghdad youth on his war leave discussed his time in combat in Syria and closer to home, scrolling through photos on his phone to older images of a happier time as a star on a youth soccer team who traveled for tournaments in Arabian Gulf countries.

"I'd prefer to play football than fight in a war, because football is my talent," he said. "But I feel I have a duty".

amsi.com & agencies

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