A fistful of dollars: Iraqis recruited for Assad's war

A fistful of dollars: Iraqis recruited for Assad's war
In-depth: It has long been known that Iraqi Shia militias are fighting alongside the Syrian regime, but recruitment drives for Iraqi Assad supporters have now even reached social media.
4 min read
04 February, 2016
The youths persuaded to fight in Syria often return to Iraq in coffins [AFP]
Campaigns in Baghdad and southern Iraq to recruit fighters for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria are sparking concerns across the country. 

Observers say the recruitment drives, which were previously conducted in narrow circles by local militias, have now gone public at a curious time in the Syrian conflict.

Offices have even been set up for the purpose, including one in an appliance department store in the Shusa district of Baghdad's Kadhimiya suburb.

There, would-be volunteers are briefed on the situation in Syria and the importance of the fight there, as part of the so-called overlap on the Iraqi-Syrian fronts.

Similar activities reportedly take place in Shia mosques especially in the slums of Baghdad, such as Sadr City.

These recruitment drives are advertised as "Defensive Jihad", where volunteering is a duty, as opposed to offensive or "Conquest Jihad" in the ideology of the Shia Islamist recruiters.

In truth, "jihad" in Syria is a subject of contention between senior Shia clerics in Najaf (Iraq), Tehran and Qom (Iran). 

While most clerics in Najaf believe fighting is a duty only in Iraq, and only against the Islamic State group, following a fatwa by leading Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani, the clerics in Iran believe fighting in Syria is also a duty on every (Shia) Muslim.

Oddly, however, according to Hussein al-Kadhimi, an expert on Shia religious affairs, there are no such recruitment offices in Iran, where the Syrian war effort is handled by the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia. 

"Taking youths from Iraq and tempting them with money or manipulating their religious sentiment to fight in Syria when IS occupies a third of Iraq answers many questions about Iran and its role in Iraq," Khadhimi said.

"The government is turning a blind eye to the theft of our youths... who are returned as dead corpses," he added.

In October, a brother of one of the youths killed in Syria attacked the home of a recruiter from the League of Righteousness in the militia's al-Shula stronghold in northwestern Baghdad.

The Iraqi army and police are not known to intervene in such cases.

Enlisting through social media

The recruitment drives have also been conducted through social media. Iraqis are enticed to go to Syria to fight alongside Assad's forces in return for sums of up to $1,500 a month. 

In Iraq, where poverty and unemployment are rife, this sum can go a long way.

Broad swathes of Iraqis have denounced the campaigns, with parents complaining they are unable to dissuade their sons because of the extremist sectarian discourse prevailing in the country.

"Urgent and a for a limited time only. Those wishing to fight in Syria against Takfiri groups [can receive a] salary of $1,500 a month. Fighting in Syria has been sanctioned by religious leaders and volunteers will join the Imam Ali Brigades," reads one advertisement on Facebook.

The advertisement included a picture of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

In other advertisements, an image of the Sayeda Zainab shrine in Syria was included with the phrase "She will not be taken slave twice".

"The Brothers of the Islamic Resistance in Syria, for the defence of Sayeda Zainab, requires 600 mujahidin... Benefits include a salary of $1,500, for a deployment period of 45 days," read another advertisement, signed by the Imam Ali Brigades.

A similar advertisement was posted on the page of the Counter-Terrorist Service of Iraq, but it was not clear whether the fighters were wanted for another militia or the agency itself, which is controlled by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Improverished youths

According to Iraqi government sources, the recruitment offices draw 300 to 400 fighters every month, mostly from the ranks of impoverished youths in the slums.

The media office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declined to comment to The New Arab about recruitment for Assad.

However, a senior official in the Interior Ministry in Baghdad said the government was powerless to do anything about these campaigns, which he said were under the protection of the Surpreme Leader of Iran.

The official, who asked not to be named, said: "These offices recruit youths who often return as corpses two or three months later.

"Their parents' silence is bought off with cash and fatwas declaring their children martyrs in heaven," he added.

The official said there were 11 offices across Iraq recruiting Iraqi fighters for Syria, and speculated that the growing drive could be the result of a greater need for additional fighters to bolster Assad's troops.

"Poverty, ignorance and religious sentiment pushes youths to go to the Syrian crucible, the cash being provided by Iran," he concluded.

"The recruitment offices for fighters in Syria are not new," said Hassan Jihad, a member of the parliamentary security committee. "The state is fully aware of them and they are not a secret.

"Iran, Hizballah and the Syrian regime are working together to recruit Iraqi youths to shore up the regime of Bashar al-Assad." It undermines Iraq's sovereignty and security, he added.

"The militias are stronger than the government. Prime Minister Abadi cannot control or address these activities," Jihad concluded.