The use of teenage suicide bombers and boy soldiers by Isis is well-documented but the so-called Islamic State is not the only militant group abusing children in Iraq.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a coalition of Shia militias sponsored by the Iraqi government and reportedly using American weapons, has also recruited an “unknown number” of minors.
Investigators with the UN’s children and armed conflict office reported last month that the PMF was searching for child soldiers from conflict zones across Iraq, as well as in Baghdad and Basra.
They saw children wearing military uniforms and carrying guns “daily” with militia convoys, a spokesperson said, adding that boys as young as 10 were used by groups supporting the Iraqi security forces in the battle for Amerli.
A spokesperson for the UN said: “Urgent measures are required in relation to the detention of children under terrorism charges, legislative reform, including the criminalisation of the recruitment and use of children, the association of children with the Popular Mobilisation Forces, as well as the implementation of policies and programmes for the rehabilitation of children affected by conflict.”
An investigation by The Associated Press has now revealed the existence of a “summer camp” for child soldiers in Baghdad run by Iraq’s largest paramilitary force.
Reporters documented around 200 cadets in one training class, most estimated to be under 18, and saw more than a dozen armed boys on the front line in Anbar province.
One 15-year-old boy, seen dressed in military fatigues, and practicing marching with other teenagers vowed to join the PMF with his “brothers” in arms.
“We've been called to defend the nation,” Asam Riad said.
“I am not scared because my brothers are fighting alongside me.”
Another young recruit, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama, said he used to want to be an engineer when he grows up, but now wants to be a fighter with Shia militias like his father and older brother.
“God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe,” he told AP.
The PMF was formed by the Iraqi Interior Ministry in June 2014 as Isis overran large swathes of the country in its bloody push to create an Islamic caliphate.
The country’s most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa that month calling civilians to arms that prompted a flood of hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Then as schools broke up for the holidays last month, he put out a new call for students and school pupils to use the break to “contribute to (the country's) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk if this is required”.
The PMF camps are believed to have been set up in response to that call, although a spokesman for the group, Kareem al-Nouri, claimed the camps give “lessons in self-defence” before volunteers return to school, not to battle.
But with multiple militias operating under the umbrella with fighters loyal to largely independent leaders, AP reported that the ban on children in real combat is “weakly enforced” at best.
Evidence of child soldiers could have serious implications for the US-led coalition, which provides billions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Iraqi government but has sought to distance itself from Iranian-backed militias accused of war crimes.
Although the US does not directly supply the Popular Mobilisation Forces, but the group receives weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and is trained by the Iraqi military, which in turn receives its training from the US, Britain and allies.
Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, America is expressly prohibited from providing some forms of military support, including financing and direct sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.
When informed of the AP findings, the American Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the US was “very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilisation forces in the fight against Isis".
“We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so," the statement said.
The UN has verified the recruitment of at least 67 boys by Isis, although the real number is believed to be far higher, and Yazidi defence groups, Sunni tribal militias, Turkmen fighters and the Kurdish Peshmerga are also accused of using underage fighters.
All sides are battling on multiple frontlines to take back territory from Isis and their rivals as conflict continues in Iraq.
The group has also boasted of its training camps for “cubs of the Caliphate”, where boys were filmed in military uniforms standing in formation as they performed exercises and chanted “Allahu Akbar!” to a commander’s orders.
Saddam Hussein’s child recruits were also known as “lion cubs” and were trained as teenagers during the school holidays to join the dictator’s Fedayeen loyalist paramilitary.
Additional reporting by AP
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