An exclusive investigation by Kurdish broadcaster Rudaw has revealed that Iranian-backed Shiite militia group Hashd al-Shaabi has trained hundreds of child soldiers in northern Iraq, in violation of the international humanitarian law.
Commanders of the Hashd al-Shaabi troops, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), performed the military training in Bashir village, Kirkuk province, for some 280 children. Last year, 180 child soldiers completed the three months military training course, and some 100 children have so far graduated this year.
According to Rudaw, the children were trained to use light and heavy weapons to prepare them to take part in the fight against the PMF’s enemies in Iraq. International law prohibits the recruitment and training of children under the age of 18 and the use of child soldiers has been recognized as a war crime under the statute on the International Criminal Court.
A representative of the Shiite militia group defended the decision to recruit and train child soldiers, “These youngsters are taught martial arts and how to use weapons so that they can defend themselves and their areas,” said Sayyid Qambar Musawi, a Shiite cleric in Bashir.
The PMF is a diverse 60,000-140,000 strong umbrella organization formed in 2014 and a large number of its hardline factions directly receive funding, training, and weapons directly from Iran, raising fears that the Iranian regime is becoming ever more powerful in Iraq.
The Iraqi parliament last year passed a law which recognizes the Shiite militia group as an official part of the Iraqi armed forces, subject to the laws of Iraq, which also prohibits the use of child soldiers.
The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the prevalence of child soldiers by numerous armed organizations in Iraq, including the PMF, which HRW accuses of a variety of human rights abuses, including summary executions.
Kirkuk Provincial Council confirmed to Rudaw that an investigation has been launched and actions will be taken against groups that recruit and train child soldiers. “[We call] on civil society organizations, security institutions, and the United Nations to bring this to an end,” Jwan Hassan, head of the Human Rights Committee of Kirkuk Council, said.
The Rudaw report comports with other evidence that the Iranian-backed militias engage in this illegal practice.
In its 2016 Human Rights Report for Iraq, the United States State Department charged that “armed Shia groups, under the banner of the PMF, continued to give weapons training and military-style physical fitness conditioning to children under the age of 18 at summer training camps.”
Though Shi’ite clergy officially prohibits the recruiting of child soldiers, the report notes that posts on social media provide evidence that child soldiers are being deployed by the militias. “For example, the official ‘Ideological Guidance’ page of the PMF website,” the report noted, “lauded a 14-year-old volunteer from Basrah for fighting alongside his father in Fallujah.”
In April 2016 the United Nations verified the recruitment of twelve underage soldiers by the PMF, all of whom were killed in combat.
Witnesses cited by the report testified that the PMF often recruited poor children for fighting.
The State Department also reported that in some cases, Sunni PMF has recruited child soldiers too.