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Child Soldiers in Iraq

With the war against ISIS in Iraq officially declared over by the Iraqi government in December, efforts on the ground have now begun to focus on rebuilding the lives of the Iraqi people. Of particular concern is the rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers in Iraq, the young “cubs of the caliphate” trained by ISIS and indoctrinated with its ultraviolent ideology.

What Has Happened to Child Soldiers in Iraq?

It is estimated that over the past four years, at least 2,000 minors underwent military training in ISIS camps, learning to use light and medium weaponry and function as effective cogs in the ISIS machine. Yet what may be most distressing is not the technical training these children received, but rather the ideological indoctrination.

The indoctrination that took place in ISIS sponsored schools and training camps instilled these children with extremist beliefs and sought to normalize acts of violence and killing. The result, ISIS hoped, would be the creation of the jihadists of the future, a group of fighters steeped in the ultraviolent ideology of ISIS and capable of waging a holy war for generations.

It is this deeply seated indoctrination into extremism, experts fear, that may pose a grave threat to the future stability of Iraq. With the end of the war and a return to normal life, many foresee the violent indoctrination of ISIS preventing these children from reintegrating into society and leading normal lives. With an intentionally violent and radical worldview, it is possible that many child soldiers will return to their towns highly radicalized, facing the discomfort of a worldview which does not match reality.

Besides being radicalized, many of these former child soldiers in Iraq also suffer from psychological trauma derived from a childhood of violence and warfare. For many, it is all they know and it is this mindset geared toward violence that has no place in normal life that could isolate them from their friends, families and peers. The resulting isolation caused by their inability to properly reintegrate may then make them more vulnerable to crime or further acts of extremism.

Why is Reintegration So Difficult?

Now that the process toward normalization has begun for many Iraqis, the question facing towns, families and NGOs is how to welcome back the former child soldiers in Iraq. There is no doubt that the task is monumental, as in many places there are no jobs available and professionals needed for psychological rehabilitation remain few and far between.

The complexity of the situation in Iraq remains a hazard to successful reintegration as well. In some territories which were held previously by ISIS, families who were sympathetic to the Caliphate gave their children up willingly and the child may continue to be indoctrinated when he or she returns home. It is also no secret that many Iraqis hold a grudge against former ISIS members and would deny them treatment and reconciliation.

What is Being Done?

Yet with peace becoming a reality, there is real promise for a brighter future for these former child soldiers in Iraq. Programs demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers have been successful in countries such as Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Such programs began by clearing the environment of weapons, then identifying former child soldiers who needed special care. Next, focus was placed on empowering these children with a feeling of belonging and re-establishing societal and familial links to reintegrate them.

Local citizens are also taking matters into their own hands to re-educate former child soldiers in Iraq. In Mosul, for instance, a group of Muslim law sages has begun preaching a moderate brand of Islam with the intent to promote peace and reconciliation.

What remains clear is that reintegrating child soldiers in formerly held ISIS territory will be a difficult, long term process, one which needs attention from the highest authorities inside and outside Iraq. If Iraq is ever to be war free and at peace, this challenge must be addressed and reconciliation and reintegration of child soldiers must be made a priority to end the cycle of violence.

– Taylor Pace
Photo: Flickr

Medical Education in IraqSince the conclusion of the Iraq War, the relationship between border countries Iran and Iraq shifted into a new era of close diplomatic and economic relations. In a recent press release, Iran agreed to construct Iraq’s first foreign University of Medical Sciences after nearly two decades of destruction.

The relationship between the two countries has not always been cordial. Turmoil severely increased during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 – 1988. During the Bush administration, United States Special Operations Forces conducted cross-border operations within southern Iraq. The demise of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created civil conflict and political unrest, severely affecting the medical education in Iraq and causing conflict between neighboring countries.

The tension between Iraq and Iran further increased in 2007, when the U.S. Congress agreed to fund up to $400 million for increased covert operations designed to destabilize Iran’s religious leadership and gather information about the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Iraq was unintentionally caught in the dispute between the US and Iran.

The Iraqi government depended on the 140,000 US troops stationed throughout the country, but its Kurdish and Shia leaders had strong alliances with Iran. Frequent threats and deadly attacks caused a mass departure of senior medical professors from Iraq. The exodus of Iraq’s healthcare workforce adversely impacted the medical training programs, leadership, and mainly, educational system. By the end of 2011, U.S. military forces were completely withdrawn from Iraq, officially ending the Iraq War.

Seven months after U.S. influence declined, Syria, Iraq and Iran signed a natural gas agreement which allowed for the construction of a $10 billion pipeline connecting Iraq and Syria directly to Iraq’s natural gas fields. The pipeline took six years to build and was officially completed in 2016.

Recently, Iran publicly announced its agreement to begin exporting natural gas to Iraq for $3.7 billion per year. The relationship between the two countries continues to strengthen as U.S. involvement decreases.

On Thursday, the Iranian Deputy Health Minister Dr. Bagher Larijani and Iraqi medical officials met in Tehran to discuss joint projects. The group achieved initial agreements to collaborate on various educational and scientific programs, This includes the establishment of Iraq’s first foreign University of Medical Sciences. Iran’s Ministry of Health will supervise the project. The Tehran University of Medical Sciences, the largest medical university in Iran, will construct it.

“This project is being pursued in earnest by the educational department of Iran’s Ministry of Health,” Dr. Larijani stated, “(and it is) in line with the development of medical science education in Iraq.”

The Deputy Health Minister also mentioned that the two countries discussed collaborative teacher/student transfer programs and the creation of “joint scientific networks” in medical research and scientific production. The unification between border countries has propelled Iraq into a positive direction after nearly two decades of civil destruction. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), during the Iraq War “approximately 61 universities and college buildings were war damaged and 101 college buildings were looted.”

Currently, there are 24 certified medical colleges in Iraq, all of which are governmental and operate under the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. The medical education in Iraq faces numerous challenges. Both the curriculum and teaching methods are outdated, and there is a lack of suitable facilities. The colleges are focused on increasing student attendance rather than updating old curriculum and forming universal guidelines between medical schools.

Beyond the partnership with Iran, Iraq’s strategic plan to reconstruct and progress the medical education in Iraq is unclear. The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education has not released a project proposal or curriculum plans yet.

Madison O’Connell

Photo: Google

Pakistan refugees
The media’s focus has centered on the Syrian refugee crisis but other people from other nations, including Pakistani refugees, are fleeing their homelands for a better future in America or Europe.

Because it shares its borders with both Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan has been embroiled in the Iran and Afghanistan wars with the United States. Many refugees have fled to and from Pakistan due to the ongoing conflict.

Here are 10 facts about Pakistani refugees and asylum in Pakistan:

  1. Malala Yousafzai is a notable Pakistani refugee who garnered media coverage when she was shot point-blank in 2012. Yousafzai has gone on to advocate for equitable access to education for young women and won a Nobel Prize at fifteen years old in 2015.
  2. Pakistan was not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined a refugee as “someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.”
  3. Pakistan has not been able to establish any nationwide legislation regarding the protection of refugees or procedures to determine whether someone falls into refugee status.
  4. Pakistan’s lack of legislation regarding refugees means that the provisions of the 1993 Cooperation Agreement, between the government of Pakistan and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), determine any refugee status.
  5. More than 1.2 million Pakistanis have been affected by military insurgencies in northwest Pakistan.
  6. Most refugees flee Pakistan by crossing the border on foot into Iran, taking a bus toward Turkey and crossing the Turkish border on foot to avoid border security. From there, it is a matter of finding someone willing to transport the refugees across the Mediterranean Ocean, for a reasonable sum, to land in Greece.
  7. Even if Pakistanis reach Greece and the relative safety of the European Union, they are not guaranteed decent living conditions, according to some refugees. Instead of being given asylum status, refugees run the risk of being contained in high-security detention facilities or even repatriated to Pakistan.
  8. Pakistan is not involved in an official war so it is possible that refugees from Pakistan are overlooked. The threat of gangs, mafia and poverty are not seen as “legitimate” causes for creating refugees when compared to an internationally recognized war.
  9. Pakistan’s government began cracking down on refugees living in their country. UNHCR set aside funds to repatriate 600,000 Afghan refugees as of June 2016. Some families do not want to leave their adopted country — they worry that they will be forcibly deported when their Pakistan Proof of Registration card expires.
  10. Around 1.6 million refugees live in Pakistan as of June 2016 according to UNHCR.

The refugee system in Pakistan is still in flux and requires more strict legislation be passed to help asylum seekers.

Advocates like Malala Yousafzai are doing great work to bring attention to the plight of Pakistanis fleeing Pakistan but there is still work to do.

You can help by contacting your Congress representatives and letting them know you support increasing the International Affairs Budget that goes to help the world’s poor, which often includes struggling Pakistani refugees.

Bayley McComb

Photo: Flickr