Iraq’s Children: From Insurgents to Civilians?

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By Rachel Steinacher – Since 2006, Iraqi youth have played an increasingly active role in various Iraqi insurgent groups. As a result, since the 2007 US troop surge began, the number of youth detained in Multi-National Force – Iraq facilities increased some 800 percent. At its peak there were over 1000 children in custody. With nearly half of Iraq’s population under 18 years of age, the military cannot afford to alienate its young detainees and has taken steps to see that it doesn’t.

The coalition forces in Iraq have been taking steps to reform its facilities, including the development of educationally-centered demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programs for children, in the hope that they will not return to violence once they are released. Though it is unlikely the majority of youth detainees will be “won over” by these programs, there is hope that at a minimum, they will leave its correctional facilities no more hardened or radicalized than when they entered.

Youth have assumed such strategic significance in Iraq in part because of the troop surge, which substantiallyreduced the flow of foreign fighters into the country, thus putting pressure on insurgent groups to recruit children. As more youth joined the insurgency, larger numbers have ended up in detention.

Children join these insurgent groups for various reasons, one of which is the strong economic incentive. Insurgents have been reported to pay children $200–300 for planting an improvised explosive device. With a national GDP per capita of $3,600 and an unemployment rate of 18 to 30 percent, this payoff is significant.

Further to this, the use of child soldiers has a recent history in Iraq. The Ashbal Saddam, or “Saddam Lion Cubs,” a youth paramilitary, was created after the Gulf War to buffer the regime against the crippling battlefield losses that it suffered. Boys between the ages of 10 and 15 received military training, which included frequent abuse to render them less sensitive to violence. The success of these camps came from their ability to radicalize children, who are particularly susceptible to indoctrination.

For the reintegration of insurgents into society as citizens to be successful, combating ideologies of violence must be the foundation of each program initiative. In addition to familiar job training or other non-combat skills development, rehabilitation programs can lay the mental groundwork for combatants to choose not to re-engage in combat upon release from detention or from a demobilization camp, and ultimately, to re-integrate into their society as civilians. These programs are meant to give combatants the intellectual tools, social networks, and support to do so.

An important first step in the new approach to demobilization, disarmament and reintegration is the separation of youth from adults, and moderates from extremists, since correctional facilities have often been breeding grounds for radicalization. Detainees subject to inhumane treatment, including harassment, torture and rape, develop genuine grievances that fester within prison populations, which therein become fertile ground for such ideologies.

To prevent such abuse, the administration in the reformed facilities is monitored and transparent. The children are closely supervised for their own protection, while personnel in contact with them are also supervised, given strict behavioral guidelines and held accountable. Various social psychological experts have presented evidence that these practices are very effective in reducing the risk and occurrence of abuse.1]

To try to use time spent in detention constructively rather then letting it become destructive, the coalition forces founded the Dar al-Hikmah or “House of Wisdom,” an education center for youth detainees. The programs run in Dar al-Hikmah include the core curriculum of the Iraqi school system and its graduates receive a corresponding school certificate from the Iraqi government. Taught along with these core courses, are classes which emphasize the importance of civics and the functions of the Iraqi government. To encourage a less radical religiosity, children are taught moderate Islamic theology by local religious leaders. It is hoped that by putting children through this program “we ensure when the detainees are released that they pick up a book instead of an AK-47,” a hopeful statement, of which we must be skeptical.2]

Despite their strengths, such educationally-based rehabilitation programs are no panacea. Indeed, with an 84 percent literacy rate for males 15 years or older, most of these youths are neither uneducated nor naïve. In fact, the majority of insurgents are males from middle class families. Their attraction to insurgent groups is not due to ignorance; it is informed by life experience, ideologies, social pressure and economic incentives. Instructing an 11-year-old who attempted a suicide bombing attack as to the good intentions of the foreign occupation in his country, and giving him a basic education while detained will not likely change his beliefs drastically. But humane treatment and close supervision can at least lessen the likelihood of his experiences with corrections personnel and other detainees as being humiliating and confrontational.

Iraq’s children –a new generation of citizens– are growing up in a war zone. Though we cannot be sure of the overall effect this has had on the political views of Iraqi youth, we know that some perceive the military occupation of their country as a negative and destructive and that such perceptions hold great strategic significance. It is imperative that as few of them as possible see insurgency as their duty, or worse, their destiny.

For those who do and end up in correctional facilities, it is important that time spent there not result in further radicalization or deeper, validated mistrust of coalition forces. This new program’s strength comes from treating these young people humanely and engaging their intelligence, bringing the forces a step closer to changing their perceptions and, consequently, closer to transitioning them from combatants to engaged civilians. But with the possibility of the coalition forces withdrawing from Iraq in the near future, we have yet to see if the national Iraqi prison systems will adopt similar initiatives to help safeguard their next generation of citizens.


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