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Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 - Iraq

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 - Iraq, 2004, available at: [accessed 22 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Republic of Iraq

Covers the period from April 2001 to March 2004.

Population: 24.5 million (11.8 million under 18)
Government armed forces: 389,000
Compulsory recruitment age: no conscription
Voluntary recruitment age: 18
Voting age: 18
Optional Protocol: not signed
Other treaties ratified (see glossary): CRC, ILO 138, ILO 182

There were no reports of under-18s serving in Iraqi armed forces formed after the United States (US)-led occupation in 2003. The US government confirmed that 17-yearold soldiers were among the occupying forces. A large number of children received military training under the former government of Saddam Hussein. Armed political groups reportedly used children as combatants.


A US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, overthrowing the Ba'ath party government headed by President Saddam Hussein. Thousands of civilians, possibly tens of thousands, died in the continuing conflict with the occupying forces.1 Peace remained elusive as the forces of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) tried to establish a new administration and faced increasing attack from supporters of the former government and other armed groups. Intermittent conflict continued between Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.


National recruitment legislation and practice

The constitution in force before the invasion provided for compulsory military service. Under the 1969 Military Service Act and resolutions subsequently passed by the Revolutionary Command Council, all men aged between 18 and 45 were liable for military service for two years, or 18 months for higher education students or graduates. In times of war, the age of conscription and length of military service could be changed. Volunteers were reportedly recruited from the age of 15, including trainees who entered the military academy at the minimum age of 16 and joined the armed forces after a one-year course.2

UNICEF reported that boys in orphanages often left school at 15 to enrol in the military and that children were likely to be among prisoners of war captured in 2003.3 Of individuals listed by the CPA as imprisoned in Iraq since the occupation, 282 were aged under 18 in 2003 and included those who were stated to present a security threat and others stated to have been arrested as criminals in Baghdad.4

In May 2003 the CPA ordered the complete dismantling of the Iraqi army, the demobilization of all enlisted soldiers and the indefinite suspension of universal conscription. The CPA envisaged that the new army would be "relatively small (three to five divisions, roughly 40,000 soldiers), professional (enrolment on a voluntary basis only, available to those between the ages of 18 and 40, initially for 26 months), purely defensive and non-political".5 The CPA order creating the new armed forces in August 2003 specified that the minimum age of recruitment was 18 and that recruitment was voluntary. A civil defence corps established in September 2003 was made a component of the armed forces in April 2004.6

Prior to the invasion, Human Rights Watch received reports that Iraqi officials recruited boys as young as 15 into militias such as Jaysh al-Quds (the Jerusalem Army) in cases where a household had no adult males able to serve. Families who refused to send a male for training were threatened with expulsion from their homes.7

US-led Coalition forces

The Director of Military Personnel Policy for the US Army stated in a letter to Human Rights Watch that "A total of 62 soldiers were 17 years old upon arrival to both Afghanistan and Iraq during 2003 and 2004. These 62 soldiers served in all capacities in the Army". He stated that as of 29 March 2004 there were no soldiers in Iraq who were 17 years old.8

Military training and military schools

There was extensive military training of children under the Ba'ath party government in power until March 2003. The Ashbal Saddam (Saddam Lion Cubs), formed after the 1991 Gulf War, recruited children aged 10 to 15 years old who attended three-week training courses in use of weapons, hand-to-hand fighting and infantry tactics. There were an estimated 8,000 members in Baghdad alone.9 There was no evidence that these children participated in hostilities.

Armed political groups

Several armed groups had been fighting the Ba'ath party government, the governments of Iran and Turkey, and each other for decades. Others were formed following the collapse of the Ba'ath party government. Armed groups reported to have used child soldiers included the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Jaysh al-Mahdi (Army of the Mahdi).

The KDP and the PUK are the principal parties in the Kurdish Regional Government that controls the three provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. Their peshmerga (armed forces), though formally linked, retain their own command structures and regulations, each comprising between 25,000 and 30,000 fighters.10 KDP regulations forbid recruitment of under-18s into the armed forces and a KDP representative said that their forces were, and had always been, recruited on a voluntary basis.11 The age of admission to the two PUK and KDP military academies was unknown. A decree in 2002 reportedly ended the recruitment of volunteers to the peshmerga from the age of 15.12 However, there were subsequent reports of children fleeing harassment from the forces of the Ba'ath party government and taking refuge with the peshmerga in the mountains, and of Kurdish boys becoming peshmerga at the age of 14 or even younger.13

The two main Islamist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan – Ansar al-Islam and the Kurdish group Komaleh Islami – had their bases bombed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ansar al-Islam, with around 600 fighters, was accused of links with al-Qaeda and reportedly included non-Kurdish fighters.14 There were indications that some of the members of Islamist Kurdish armed groups, engaged in intermittent combat with the PUK since 1993, were very young.15

Jaysh al-Mahdi, led by Muqtada Sadr, had a large presence in the cities of Najaf and Karbala and the newly named "Sadr City" suburb in Baghdad, with members estimated at between 3,000 and 10,000, including under-18s.16

Other armed groups were not known to use child soldiers. Some 5,000 combatants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were said to be in northern Iraq in November 2003, where they had decamped following a PKK ceasefire with the Turkish government in 1999.17 The PKK had reportedly had hundreds of boys and girls in its ranks in the late 1990s, but there were no recent reports of their using child soldiers.

The Supreme Council for the Iranian Revolution in Iraq, a coalition of Shi'a Islamist parties formed in 1982 in opposition to the Ba'ath party government, had an armed wing of between 8,000 and 10,000 members.

The Iraqi National Congress and Iraqi National Accord, opposition groups which returned from exile following the 2003 invasion, retained armed recruits to guard party buildings and protect their leaders.18 Al-Fath al-Mubin (Clear Victory), led by Sheikh Saleh Muhammad Abdullah, received support from the Sunni Islamic community and was based in the "Sunni Triangle" area of the country. It said it had 3,000 volunteers and soldiers from the dissolved Iraqi army.19

* See glossary for information about internet sources.

1 See MedAct, Continuing Collateral Damage: The health and environmental costs of war on Iraq, October 2003,; also Iraq Body Count,

2 US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2003, February 2004, and Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001, March 2002,

3 UNICEF, Iraq Watching Briefs: Child Protection, July 2003.


5 International Crisis Group (ICG), Iraq: Building a new security structure, Middle East Report No. 20, 23 December 2003.

6 CPA Orders No. 22, Creation of a New Iraqi Army; No. 28, Establishment of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps; No. 67, Ministry of Defense; No. 73, Transfer of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps to the Ministry of Defense, at

7 Information from Human Rights Watch (HRW), March 2004.

8 Sean J. Byrne, Brigadier General, US Army, Director of Military Personnel Policy, letter to Human Rights Watch, 2 April 2004.

9 US Department of State, op. cit.

10 BBC News, "Factfile: Kurdish Fighters", 11 April 2003,

11 Communication from KDP, 13 February 2004.

12 Information from UNICEF Iraq, 6 July 2003.

13 Information from Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2 February 2004; Anna Badkhen, "7Year-Old Kurd: I like war: Kids forced to grow up quickly as rebel warriors in northern Iraq", San Francisco Chronicle, 6 April 2003.

14 ICG, Radical Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan: The mouse that roared?, 7 February 2003.

15 Institute for War and Peace Reporting, op. cit.

16 ICG, Radical Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan, op. cit.; The Guardian, "Army of the dispossessed rallies to Mahdi", 8 April 2004.

17 BBC News, "US troops clash with 'PKK rebels'", 10 November 2003.

18 ICG, Iraq: Building a new security structure, op. cit.

19 Al Riyadh (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), "Tashkil jaysh "al-Fath al-Mubin" ba'd "al-Mahdi" yundhir bi-tahwil bilad al-rafidin ila duwal tawa'if " [The formation of al-Fath al-Mubin after al-Mahdi threaten to transform resistance into sectarian bodies], 6 January 2004,

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