Extremist militias like the dangerous League of Righteous are luring new recruits by offering loans and jobs. At first, the recruits don't have to do anything but then the young men find themselves training with weapons in Iran.
Some observers believe these underhand tactics will only increase as Iraq's security situation deteriorates. When young Baghdad man, Mahdi Mohsen, badly needed a loan, one of his neighbours offered him money.
The unemployed man took the money, not realising how it would change his life. "He used to give me lots of money,” Mohsen told NIQASH.
“At some point he gave me US$1,000 in return for doing a few little jobs, like cleaning a place or organising goods stored in an office.” Mohsen had been unable to find a job and Abdul-Hussein al-Kanani helped him out with some cash.
Then after several months, al-Kanani suggested that instead of looking for a job, Mohsen could start work for the League of Righteous; the monthly salary would be US$400 and he wouldn’t have to do much. That is significant in a country where the average wage is around US$500 a month.
Mohsen signed on and recently his wage even went up to US$600 a month. However Mohsen doesn't care, he just wants to quit this job. But he cannot.
“I just want to wake up from this nightmare,” he says. “I don’t care about the money anymore or the new house I've rented. I've got a lot of problems now because of who I am working for.”
The mainly Shiite Muslim extremist group, the League of Righteous, is actually an offshoot of the Mahdi Army, a large militia formed from the Sadrist movement, that was held responsible for much of the violence against American troops after 2003 as well as conflicts that nearly plunged Iraq into a sectarian, civil war.
However over the years, the Sadrist movement has disarmed and, as a political force, has become a crucial part of the current coalition government; it has also been engaged in community work and now it even seems to be becoming popular with Iraqis that did not previously support it.
Meanwhile the League of the Righteous is still an armed militia group and it has even clashed with the Mahdi Army in recent times. In fact, leading Shiite Muslim cleric who heads the Sadrists, Muqtada al-Sadr, has described League members as criminals and murderers.
Further afield, the League is designated a terrorist organisation and it continues to be one of the most feared extremist militant groups in Iraq. Muntater al-Daraji has a similar story to tell about how he was recruited to the League of the Righteous “I had family problems,” he explains.
“My mother died and my father remarried but my new stepmother told us we had to leave the family home. I had nowhere to go and I was just drifting between relatives' houses. The League offered me a good job as a guard at one of their institutions, gave me a place to live and a good salary. I couldn't really refuse.”
Even on his first day of work, he received a gift of US$1,500. “I realized straight away that doing this job was going to have a big impact on my life and my reputation but I didn't really have a choice,” al-Daraji says.
Mohammed Raad, a former security officer, believes that these kinds of recruitment incidents are just increasing because of the deterioration in Iraq's security situation over the past few months.
“That deterioration has come as a result of groups like the League of the Righteous and others stepping up their activities, making it clear that they exist and that they have power,” Raad said. “That's made these groups increase their campaigns to mobilize local youth.”
When NIQASH contacted officials in the League of Righteous though, they refused to comment on whether they recruited young people in underhand ways or not. They did deny that they were actively involved in recruiting people at all.
“We don't need any more members right now,” one of them said. “But maybe we'll need more in the future.”
Another young man Fadel Rasoul says he was tricked into working for the extremist militia. He's actually from a financially stable family but one of his friends told him that if he joined up at one of the League's offices, he would be paid US$300 per month for doing nothing.
Its a little like the kinds of outreach, or social welfare, programmes, run by organizations like the Lebanese group Hezbollah. “I went to their office and I filled out a form,” Rasoul explains.
“I got the money for three months and I never did anything for the organisation. Then one day an official at the same office called me and told me to come and meet him. When I got there, to my surprise, I was given an airplane ticket, US$1,000, a tourist visa for Iran and a booking form for a four star hotel there, for ten days.”
“Almost one month after I returned from what was basically a tour, the same official asked me to go to Iran again. But this time it was together with 17 other men and our group was accompanied by League officials.
When we arrived, we quickly figured out it wasn’t holiday: it was an intensive military training session. It went on for almost 15 days,” Rasoul says. “I just couldn’t say no. So I participated in the training course because I was very scared of what would happen to me if I refused.”
Upon returning from Iran, Rasoul went back to the office and asked if he could give up membership of the organisation. He was told that, “in this game, anyone who starts to play can't give up easily”. Which is why Rasoul is still a member of the League today.
And there are plenty of other young Iraqi men caught in the financial traps set by extremist militias like the League of the Righteous. “The mobilization of youth by the militias is ongoing - and it never stops,” local political analyst, Jafar Abdul-Ilah, told NIQASH.
“There are a number of reasons for this. Political conflicts, party pluralism in the country's administration and the need that some parties have for militias, to protect their interests. All of these mean that young men will continue to be recruited.”
Hani Ashour, a former adviser to the opposition Iraqiya coalition, says there is one obvious way to solve this problem.
The government, he told NIQSH, needs to, “figure out how to end widespread youth unemployment. That's just making it easy for militias and terror groups to recruit young people. Weapons," he concluded, “should only ever be in the hands of the Iraqi government.”
by Ahmed Muayed in Baghdad