Plans to reintroduce military service in Iraq divide opinion

The country introduced national service in 1935, but it was scrapped after the 2003 US-led invasion

Iraq has more than a million soldiers, police officers and members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces either serving or receiving retirement pay. AFP
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Plans to bring back military conscription in Iraq have sparked controversy in a nation that has endured decades of war.

Legislation was prepared and approved by the previous caretaker government in August last year and sent to parliament. But it was delayed by the political stalemate that followed elections two months later.

The first reading for the bill was scheduled for Sunday, but postponed until Tuesday because of widespread objections inside the legislative body, mainly from Shiite factions in the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework, which controls nearly 150 seats in the 329-seat parliament.

Iraqi soldiers at the site of an attack attributed to ISIS that killed six police officers and wounded seven in Salaheddin province north of Baghdad on July 20, 2022. AFP

According to the draft law, men aged between 18 and 45 would be eligible for conscription. They would spend between three and 18 months in national service, depending on their education level.

Those with health difficulties or breadwinners for their families would be exempted from service. Paying cash in lieu of military service will also be an option, but the draft law does not specify the amount.

The bill would also re-establish a military reserve service for those under 50.

Those who refuse military service would be banned from work or travel abroad. Fines and terms in prison for up to three years would also be applied.

The draft law envisages a two-year implementation period after its approval in parliament, to fully restore conscription and prepare logistics.

Iraq introduced compulsory military service in 1935. It was scrapped after 2003 when the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein regime, making military service optional.

Since parliament announced the bill, there has been a mixed reaction and wide debate among Iraqis.

Supporters argue that the bill will not only strengthen the country’s capability to fight terrorism and promote patriotism among Iraqis, but will galvanise the young workforce for civilian life, teaching them the value of discipline.

“This law is essential as the country faces terrorism-related concerns,” said Sakfan Sindi, the deputy head of parliament's security and defence committee.

Mr Sindi said that allowances ranging from 600,000 to 700,000 Iraqi dinars (more than $400), would be paid for those doing military service.

Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi said the bill would “guarantee preparing a generation of youth who are capable of facing life's hardships, fully aware of rights and duties, ready to protect the state and its sovereignty, and boost principles, ethics and adherence to national identity”.

Reconstruction needs

Critics of the bill said they are concerned about the militarisation of society, and wasting sorely needed funds for rebuilding the country after decades of war and corruption.

“The estimated amount to be spent each month could reach $3 billion,” Zahra Al Bachari MP said.

“Therefore, all extra funds we set aside when prices of oil are high will go to the army and we will need to borrow or divert money from other sectors when prices go down,” she added.

Forcing young people into military service amounted to a “disaster”, she said, urging the government to allocate the money for infrastructure projects instead.

For lawyer Ahmed Al Zayadi, the bill will lead to the “militarisation of the community and the stealing of public funds instead of spending on much-needed projects and services”.

Iraq already has over a million soldiers, police officers and members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces either serving or receiving retirement pay.

The PMF is an umbrella group of mainly Iran-backed Shiite militias. The Kurdish region in the north has its own force of Peshmerga militias.

The PMF and the Peshmerga alone each have more men in their ranks than the British Army.

About seven million male Iraqis would be forced to join the army, Ms Al Bachari said.

Since 2003, Iraq has experienced insurgency and sectarian conflict that culminated in 2014, when ISIS seized large portions of territory. The extremist group was declared defeated in late 2017 by Iraqi forces backed by a US-led military coalition.

That anti-ISIS coalition continued a limited combat role in Iraq until last December, but roughly 2,500 American soldiers remain in Iraq to offer training, advice and assistance to national forces.

Despite the declared victory over ISIS, members of the group continue to stage intermittent attacks on government forces and the PMF paramilitary organisation, now integrated into the regular forces.

It is still unclear exactly how much backing the military service bill will receive in parliament.

Updated: November 07, 2022, 2:06 PM