Baghdad considers compulsory military service
BAGHDAD - Iraq is reviving compulsory military service, not only to boost defence capabilities in the face of the Islamic State (ISIS) but to end sectarian strife that has claimed a heavy civilian toll and shattered the country’s once tightly knit fabric.
Although the government and its security agencies hailed the plan to require military service all Iraqi men aged 19 to 45 as a step towards incorporating the minority Sunni Muslims into the system, critics rebuked it as costly, predicting it would worsen the country’s economic problems.
Iraqi Defence Ministry spokesman Naseer Noori said compulsory service provides trained personnel to assist the army in the fight against ISIS and other militants. More significantly, Noori said, it brings together men of various sects and ethnic backgrounds. “Soldiers from all parts of Iraq will live together and communicate with each other after years of separation and isolation,” he explained.
“By putting them together, serving on each others’ side, protecting each other while fighting a common enemy, we believe that both sides will put behind their sectarian and ethnic divisions.”
He said another advantage for the proposed law would be a decrease in unemployment, especially among the young, when thousands of Iraqi men are enlisted, even on a temporary basis, in the army.
Since the creation of the modern Iraqi state in 1932, all males over 18 years were required to serve in the military, which has played a key role in shaping Iraq’s politics.
In the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq’s military was disbanded and compulsory service revoked by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was responsible for Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell.
The decision unleashed a bloody insurgency and a sectarian strife in which 174,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed from 2003-13, according to the Iraq Body Count state project.
The new Iraqi Army has 3.8 million members with 2 million slated for the reserve. The army currently has 1.8 million active servicemen and is dominated by Shias. Sunnis and other religious and ethnic minorities have been sidelined since Saddam’s ouster.
Hundreds of thousands militiamen, mainly untrained Shia volunteers, emerged in recent years. Some have strong backing and financing from Iran. The heavily armed militias back a US-trained Army in most offensives but many Sunnis are critical of their Iranian links.
Iraqi lawmaker Abdul-Aziz Hassan, a member of parliament’s Security and Defence Committee, said that the period of the service would be determined by education. A person who completed only elementary studies must serve for 16 months, while it is 12 months for a high school graduate. Holders of a bachelor’s degree would serve 9 months and those with post-graduate degrees are excluded.
The draft bill, which must be approved by the cabinet, would later be sent to the legislature for debate and a vote.
There is a general sense that it would pass through all the channels, partly because of a rare public consensus that ending sectarianism could avert Iraq’s eventual division.
Nonetheless, an obstacle is the financial crisis hitting Iraq, which sits atop the world’s second largest known oil reserves. However, low oil prices have limited revenues, and overspending and mismanagement by top officials are blamed for Iraq being 30% short of its projected cash target each month.
The Iraqi government is barely able to pay the salaries of soldiers and Shia militiamen fighting ISIS; therefore, it is highly unlikely that it would be able to afford more for hundreds of thousands of newcomers.
The government allocated 20% of its $88 billion budget for the fiscal year 2016 for security and defence.
“Any extra expenses will add more burden on the budget. I think it is the right decision but at the wrong time,” said political analyst Ahmed Abdullah.
But security expert Ashraf al- Obeidi, a retired army brigadier, described compulsory army service as “unrealistic and unpractical”, considering the situation in the country.
“The trustworthy and disciplined Iraqi army has been the protector of the state till 2003,” Obeidi said. “The question is whether we have a real army now.
“It’s impossible to convince some youth to join an army they do not trust in the first place.”
Obeidi said that on several occasions, police units in southern provinces disobeyed orders to fight against ISIS, arguing that they would only serve in their own cities and that recapturing Sunni areas is not their duty.
Also, many Sunni political groups suspect that the draft law aims to foil plans to create local national guard forces in Sunni provinces similar to the Kurdish peshmerga. Many Shia officials and lawmakers rejected the national guard idea, claiming it is a step to establishing an autonomous Sunni region.
Another problem is whether the central government would impose compulsory military service on men living in the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
“Compulsory service should be implemented on all the people of the country. Any exclusion or exemption would have a negative impact on the whole thing,” said Obeidi.