Skip to main content

As Russia, Iran and Iraq join other states in Vienna today to discuss the Syria crisis, all parties should agree to add one item to the agenda: ending the use of child soldiers.

Of course, it is generally known that Islamic State (ISIS) engages in the practice, but they are not the only ones: Iraqi Shia militias fighting ISIS alongside Iraqi government forces are also using kids.

In early October 2015, Muthanna Qasim al-Kilabi joined the fight against ISIS from his hometown of al-Nu'maniya, in Wasit governorate, 130 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, a relative said. He was 15. He wanted to go and fight, his relative said, before school started on October 18; the Iraqi government had postponed the school year due to an outbreak of cholera.

Al-Kilabi joined the League of the Righteous a Shia militia that became part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the officially recognized volunteer paramilitaries that sprang up in June 2014 in response to a religious call to defend the nation against ISIS.

Two weeks later, at the Beiji refinery -- some 300 kilometers north of his home town -- al-Kilabi died in battle, becoming the youngest known combatant casualty in Iraq's war against the extremist group.

Other militias within the PMF are sending even younger children into battle. Nur, an 11-year old boy, told Human Rights Watch that he returned to Baghdad on October 18 after fighting for several weeks alongside his father in the First Martyr / Free Iraqis' Movement , a new militia under the PMF. Nur also saw battle in Beiji, which PMF and Iraqi counterterrorism forces re-took from ISIS on October 21. He left the frontline to start fifth grade.

Neither al-Kilabi nor Nur's families were poor, and they had fought without payment, like many of the other volunteer PMF fighters who have gone months without their usual government salary.

Children also appear in propaganda videos, such as one from May 2015 showing a group of men in military uniforms standing around a 10-year-old girl who says her name is Zahra, that she is from the Jibur tribe in Salah al-Din governorate, and that she is proud to fight ISIS "to the death" as part of the PMF.

Many militias in Iraq train or recruit children. Mytham al-Nuri was under 18 when he joined the PMF's Badr Brigades - his father Karim is the brigades' spokesman -- and fought on the front lines in 2014. He finished high school this September. The Ali Akbar brigades' Abbas Fighting Team unit provides military training to 15 to 18 year olds in Basra, according a member of the group who spoke to Human Rights Watch in July. The Peace Brigades, another militia group from Basra affiliated with the Sadrist Trend, trains 15 to 18 year olds, according to one of the trainers, but had not sent them to the front line "yet".

On June 15, Haider al-'Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, addressed a large international conference in Baghdad on the topic of ISIS' recruitment and use of children, urging the United Nations to consider such practices crimes against humanity.

ISIS is guilty as charged. In July, Human Rights Watch spoke to two Iraqi children who escaped from an ISIS training facility in Iraq, who said the group militarily trained several dozen boys as young as 14 after separating them from their parents.

But at the same time as 'Abadi condemned ISIS' use of child soldiers, the Shia militias set up military training camps for children during Ramadan (mid-June to mid-July), from Basra in the south to Diyala north of Baghdad, a Basra-based human rights activist and a journalist who visited several camps told Human Rights Watch. Online videos show children training at PMF camps, and other reports in July documented children as young as 12 on the frontline with ISIS near Fallujah in Anbar governorate.

Iraq's prime minister is in a tight spot--he has little power over the PMF militias he formally commands, except through control of funding. The US-led international coalition conducting airstrikes against ISIS and training Iraqi forces eschews the PMF, but Abadi needs the PMF to fight ISIS as long as the regular Iraqi forces are not sufficiently battle ready. Iran has supported the PMF's militias, and Russia in October offered to help fight ISIS with separate airstrikes.

Russia and Iran should use their leverage with Abadi and the militias to make clear that recruitment and use of children as soldiers needs to end now.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country

Most Viewed