“We were kind of nervous, not because we are cowards, because it
was our first fight and we were still young," said the youth, a
former teen soccer star from Baghdad.
He says he was 15 when an Iraqi Shi'ite militia first sent him to
Iran for training by the Revolutionary Guards in hills outside of
Tehran in March. He spent his 16th birthday four months ago in Syria
fighting on the frontline near Damascus.
Now, he says he is back in Iraq fighting against Sunni insurgents.
"We got some military experience in Syria with raiding, and skills
we learned in Syria help us in Samarra," he said, referring to a
frontline Iraqi city where Shi'ite paramilitaries helped government
forces halt an advance by Sunni militants.
No one knows for certain how many underage fighters are
participating in Iraq's civil war. The official recruitment age for
Iraq's army is 18. Shi'ite militia which fight alongside government
force also say they do not recruit children.
But with Sunni insurgents sweeping across the country and thousands
of Shi'ites answering a cleric's call to take up arms against them,
there is anecdotal evidence that child fighters are being sucked
into Iraq's sectarian war.
Witnesses say they have frequently seen adolescents among the Sunni
fighters at checkpoints in the north.
The Shi'ite youth, who spoke to Reuters in Baghdad during what he
described as a few days respite from the battlefield in Samarra to
visit his family, says he was drawn to the war to save his fellow
Shi'ites from the Islamic State, a Sunni group that says all
Shi'ites are heretics who must repent or die.
His name is not being printed to protect his identity. Reuters was
not able to see documents to verify his age, but if anything he
looked even younger than 16. His parents declined to be interviewed.
The Badr Organisation, a Shi'ite group which the youth said
recruited him, denies it fields underage fighters.
"We respect childhood because children are the promising future of
Iraq," said Ali Al-Allaq, a senior member of the Badr Organisation.
"We are the most prominent group in liberating areas so far, so some
young people may be bragging that they are fighting for us. But that
is not true."
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office said the government demanded
that paramilitary groups refrain from recruiting children: "The
government has been clear that volunteers should be of adult age and
should all come under the command and control of Iraqi security
"GO, SON, DO YOUR DUTY"
After his brief training in Iran earlier this year, the youth said
he spent six weeks in the Damascus suburb of Melliha with a Shi'ite
unit fighting against the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in
Syria. Nearly half of the 130 fighters in his contingent were
wounded or killed there, he said, describing intense fighting on
rooftops and alleyways.
He is not sure if he has killed anyone, but he watched one of his
fellow militia fighters drill a bullet between the eyes of a Nusra
Front militant who sneaked into the building where they were
When he returned to Iraq, the Sunni group then known as the Islamic
State in Iraq and the Levant had launched its lightning advance from
Syria across the north of Iraq. He went to Samarra to help halt the
advance on Baghdad, with his family's blessing.
"Mum was happy. She said, 'Go, son, do your duty,'" he said.
At the front, he worked as a member of a patrol helping to round up
Sunnis suspected of aiding the insurgents.
"I find Sunnis who collaborate with the Islamic State but pretend to
be shepherds. I interrogate them then I hand them over to my
commanders," he said.
He showed Reuters a video on his phone of him and a fellow fighter
questioning two men wearing traditional robes sitting on the ground.
He said they later turned the men over to his commander after
finding messages on their mobile phones with coordinates of the
militia's local checkpoints.
[to top of second column]
Outside Samarra there was a close call when Iraqi federal police
backing his paramilitary unit fled mid-battle, leaving the fighters
exposed. The youth said that showed why militia volunteers were so
important: "We fight out of our belief, while police are there only
for their salaries."
"SURPRISED HOW YOUNG THESE GUYS WERE"
Two fighters from the Iran-trained Kata'ib Hezbollah and the Abu
Fadl al-Abbas Brigades that have also sent thousands of volunteers
to Syria told Reuters they attended training this month in Baghdad
with boys turning 16 or 17.
"I was surprised how young these guys
were," said a 19-year-old Kata'ib Hezbollah member, who asked for
his name not to be used in order to speak freely. "They didn’t know
how to load a magazine or shoot their gun. I asked and they told me
they were born in 1997 and 1998.”
An 18-year-old fighter who joined the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades
said he attended training at the Taji military camp in northern
Baghdad, a Defence Ministry-run training site. He said there were
younger teenagers there, some of whom he believed would be sent to
the battlefield with inadequate training.
"The younger guys don't know how to fight," he told Reuters by phone
about the teenagers at his training camp.
"SIGNING UP ALL AGES"
Iraq is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the
Child, which calls on governments to shield children younger than 15
from participating in combat. Reuters was not able to find evidence
of fighters that young, although there was substantial evidence of
fighters close to that age and below Iraq's official recruitment age
Although the government says it takes steps to keep underage
fighters out of the fray, and the Badr Organisation says that it
does not accept them, at a neighborhood office one Badr recruiter
said that in such urgent circumstances he was taking applications
from volunteers of all ages.
Sifting through forms, he said he had collected about 7,000
applications to join the battle since Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, issued a fatwa on
June 13 calling on Shi'ites to mobilize.
"We are signing up all ages, even women. We don't reject anyone
because these people came in response to Sistani's call," he said.
Asked if he had come across fighters as young as 16, he said: "Yes,
and also boys younger than that. Some are still in training, and
some have already taken part in the fight."
The recruiter said Iraq was in no position to abide by rules banning
the recruitment of child soldiers.
"In other countries, in normal circumstances, maybe you observe this
international law because you are not in this state of war. But now
the country is in danger and there is a fatwa, and this has become a
Asked if he had sons and whether he would allow them to fight, the
recruiter said: "They are young," he replied. "Three and ten years
old. But I've already put down their names."
Across town, the Baghdad youth on his war leave discussed his time
in combat in Syria and closer to home, scrolling through photos on
his phone to older images of a happier time as a star on a youth
soccer team who traveled for tournaments in Gulf countries.
"I'd prefer to play football than fight in a war, because football
is my talent," he said. "But I feel I have a duty. If I don’t go, if
my neighbor doesn’t go, who will go to fight?"
(Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Dominic Evans, Ned Parker and
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