By Stephen Kalin
DEBAGA CAMP, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi tribal militias are recruiting youths in their mid-teens from a camp for displaced people to fight in the battle to push Islamic State out of Mosul, the camp’s manager and a rights group said.
At least seven under the age of 18 have been enlisted this month by two units of a force backed by Baghdad and Washington which is made up largely of fighters from Sunni Muslim areas in Iraq’s north and west, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.
An HRW representative the recruits were in their “mid-teens”.
A 2002 protocol of a UN convention says under-18s should not be sent into battle. Some national armies do recruit young people at 16, but not for combat duties.
The manager of Debaga camp, 40 km (25 miles) south of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, told Reuters on Tuesday the reports of recruitment of the young in the camp by older fighters were accurate.
“I cannot say we have controlled the situation 100 percent but we are doing everything we can,” Rzgar Abed said through a translator.
“The problem is the fighters live here with their family. We cannot keep them out.”
The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State (IS) has trained several thousand Sunni tribal fighters in preparation for a push on Mosul, the largest city in the self-proclaimed IS caliphate spanning swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi authorities have pledged to retake Mosul this year. A top U.S. general said on Tuesday they were on track to meet the target.
MILITIAS DRAWN FROM CAMP
The Human Rights Watch report said two tribal militias in Debaga, commanded by Nishwan al-Jabouri and Maghdad al-Sabawy respectively, were made up exclusively of camp residents.
The militias had been recruiting in the camp for months as the population surged from a few thousand to more than 36,000.
Reuters could not immediately reach Jabouri, who does not live in Debaga.
Sabawy, who lives in Debaga with his family, told Reuters in an interview that children as young as 14 had been turned away after volunteering to join the tribal militias.
“Daesh (Islamic State) recruits children who are under six and seven years old to fight,” he said.
“So when they (under-18s) see Daesh recruiting, they expect they should enlist for this too,” Sabawy added, referring to youths among the Sunni groups opposed to Islamic State.
Islamic State has produced videos of child recruits executing prisoners and has used them as suicide bombers.
Shi’ite militias fighting alongside Iraqi government forces have also been accused of using child soldiers against Islamic State, a charge they deny.
“The U.S. should press the Iraqi government to ensure that the troops they are supporting don’t have fighters under 18 in their ranks,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The battle for Mosul should not be fought with children on the front lines.”
Lise Grande, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq said in a statement the UN was “deeply concerned” by reports of boys being recruited to fight.
“Involving children in fighting is totally unacceptable,” she said.
“The battle to retake Mosul is likely to start soon. Hundreds of thousands of civilians will almost certainly be at risk. Everybody has to do everything possible to ensure they live and receive the assistance they need.”
(Editing by Andrew Roche)