Iraqis stare down the gun barrels of universal conscription

Iraq has had a difficult history of trying to enforce universal conscription into its army. These difficulties are not helped by Iraq’s tumultuous military record. This is why a proposed bill to reinstate compulsory military service may not get wide support in the country with its multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian demographic structure.

Comments of Iraqi social media users on the proposal give an indication of the spectrum of views on conscription and how divisive the issue has been historically.

Iraq’s Supreme Defence Council approved the proposed bill in late February. The move came nearly 13 years after the American administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army in the aftermath of the US invasion in 2003 and suspended universal conscription.

The proposed bill will be sent to the State Consultative Council to ascertain if it is consistent with existing laws before being sent to the cabinet and then to parliament, Iraqi defence minister Khalid Al-Obeidi said in a post on Facebook.

The post elicited hundreds of comments, voicing a largely lukewarm response although some welcomed it as a way of building a national army, and mending a deep sectarian rift that has dented Iraqi sense of cohesion and nationhood.

Unpaid salaries, difficult conditions

Some urged the minister to address problems in dire need of attention—unpaid salaries, perceived injustices and difficult conditions that military personnel have to endure in the fight against Islamic State.

Mohamed Al-Iraqi wrote: “First, the minister should look at the unpaid salaries of soldiers and officers”.

 

Another man complained about serving in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, [the state-sanctioned Shiite militias] and “not having been paid for four months”.

A man wrote that he works in the anti-explosive device unit. “We are unjustly treated by the commander of the field engineering battalion—14th division; there is injustice in the battalion”. He complained about the lack of a regular leave system and a personnel replacement system, which means battalion members have to work for weeks on end, as he said.

Before introducing conscription, the government should first create a personnel replacement system, a man said.

“Half the army does not get fair treatment because of hours of duty, dangers, tiredness and various salary deductions while you’re sitting in the ministry making decisions as you wish,” Saadi wrote.

Corruption, nepotism

Alleged corruption in the defence ministry and the military seems to be a major concern for some Iraqis.

“Corruption has eaten into the ministry,” a man wrote, questioning the work of inspection committees.

Another sceptic had doubts that sons of ministers would be conscripted. “The law will be enforced on the poor and your sons [of ministers] who live abroad will be exempted.”

In their opposition to compulsory military service, some Iraqi social media users recalled the Saddam-era wars and their heavy toll.

Alaa Noori wrote “...wars have taken the lives of many young men…In the past, youths had been sacrificed for martyrdom and now we are throwing youths in the fires of sectarian wars and the battle against terrorism”. If the defence ministry were to decide to recruit volunteers, he wrote, it could draw “thousands, if not millions of Iraqis, looking for employment”.

Yaseen Elkaysi wrote: “We have had enough militarising of society; people have been on the frontline since the 1980s.” The government, he added, “should build good schools and universities and create an army and police force that can establish security instead of reinstating a conscription system which would increase the militarisation of society and the number of those bearing arms.”

Some Iraqis have well-grounded doubts about Baghdad’s ability and wish to enforce a conscription law on Kurds.

This view was expressed by Muslim Ali who asked a rhetorical question: If such a conscription law were to be applied to Kurds, who would go after them if they refused military service? He was also sceptical about whether sons of ministers and members of parliament would be eligible for conscription. Those who live abroad, he wrote, will they be exempted. Such a law, he concluded, would be “born dead”.

Conscription should not be enforced on the Kurds, a man wrote.

“As long as the government does not pay the salaries of Kurdish [soldiers], it has no right to ask them to serve the flag."

To Iraqis yearning for a strong nation state, conscription, is the way to salvage a country riven by sectarian and ethnic strife—Sunnis vs Shiites and Arabs vs Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities.

Ahmed KN considers conscription to be “a cornerstone to building a strong non-sectarian army; serving the flag is a duty of all Iraqis from the north to the south”.

In the same vein, Salah Hassan wrote conscription is not new to Iraq and is necessary for the country as it battles ISIS.

Conscription, he wrote, “is better than having the National Guard, which creates conditions for disobedience in the provinces towards the centre and strengthens sectarianism.”