Baghdad considers compulsory military service

Sunday 01/05/2016
Iraqi soldiers reloading weapon during clashes with ISIS

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.