Bumpy history of conscription

There is ample evidence in Iraqi history to support the view that universal conscription may be difficult to enforce. Since its foundation on January 6, 1921, the Iraqi army saw Sunni Arabs become the leading force within it. In the post-2003 Iraq, Sunni Arabs tend to view the army as a weak institution dominated by Shia officers.

For Iraq’s Shia and Kurds, the view is different. Historically, for those in Kurdish and Shia tribal areas, conscription was found to be deeply objectionable and carried painful memories of Ottoman rule.

When a conscription bill was introduced to parliament in 1927, representatives of Shia and Kurdish tribes argued that the latter’s authority would be undermined as their most able fighting men would be incorporated into a Sunni Arab-dominated army. The bill was eventually withdrawn only to be revived in the form of the National Service Law introduced in 1935, alienating segments of society, which included not only the Shia and Kurds but also the religious communities of Yezidis and the Mandaeans.

From 1921 till recent times, the ethno-sectarian heterogeneous composition of the Iraqi army caused an unstable dynamic in the military, wrote Ibrahim al-Marashi and Sammy Salama, the co-authors of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.

Nevertheless, respect and appreciation developed among Iraqis over decades for the national army, the longest standing institution in the country’s history, “a guardian of Iraq and of the Iraqi people”, Al-Marashi and Salama wrote.