Militias make use of Iraqi universities to spread their influence

Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units finds that universities provide a perfect recruitment platform.

al-monitor The Shiite Popular Mobilization Units holds an event at the University of Baghdad, Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 29, 2016. Photo by Facebook/@alfaisalnews.

Topics covered

universities, recruitment, popular mobilization units, pmu, militias, iraqi youth, education

Nov 21, 2016

BAGHDAD — The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) is calling on Iraqi university students, specifically those in medicine and engineering, to sign up for logistics tasks in Iraq and Syria. But some academics believe there is a larger agenda at hand.

The PMU, a state-sponsored umbrella group for dozens of militias, organizes regular public programs at Iraqi universities to raise money. For example, the University of Baghdad on Oct. 29 held a festival to support the PMU with the slogan “Our Units Win.” Several leaders and security officials of various PMU factions attended, and some made ardent statements that excited the students.

The University of Baghdad hosts more PMU factions’ activities than any other university in the capital, usually two or three activities a week, thanks to its expansive halls and large student body. Another plus is that faculty deans give their approval to such activities, even if sometimes reluctantly.

Hashem Hassan, the school's dean of journalism, said the large, young audiences the PMU gathers at universities boosts PMU members' morale and gives the group a national identity. The schools provide a significant platform from which the PMU can rally students and spread its influence. Hassan told Al-Monitor that universities, as the cradles of science and the cultural hubs of society, offer the PMU a way to gauge a generation's priorities and develop national action plans accordingly.

The country hasn't reached the point where it must draft students to fight, but some students have enlisted, Hassan said, perhaps due to the tough financial circumstances of their families.

Earlier this year, the PMU launched an initiative to form university student forces to train students in the use of weapons and martial arts. Militias set up training camps in what were once university halls. Many university students from Baghdad and other provinces responded to the initiative, and the PMU trained them to become a civil force ready for fighting at any given moment.

Moeen al-Kadhimi, a PMU leader, told Al-Monitor, “University students are an important social category for defending the country, and the PMU is constantly looking to lure them in. All students are enrolled in training sessions to use weapons and martial arts, in anticipation of any emergency.” During the training, students are assigned various ranks "and tasked with defense and security missions in Baghdad,” he added.

The student forces currently support fighters in battlefields by collecting donations and caring for the families of those who have died. The student forces are considered important PMU assets. Kadhimi noted that many students join the resistance factions or the PMU after graduating.

Many Iraqi university academics reject the idea of promoting militias in education venues and consider them attempts at social mobilization and elimination of free education.

Hussein Hanoun, an assistant professor at Al-Mustansiriya University, said it is wrong to turn universities into security camps and university campuses into venues to train students to use weapons.

“Iraq is at war currently, but it is not right to turn education venues into a fertile ground for military propaganda. Each party [PMU faction] is trying to spread its ideas among the youth instead of aiming to unify and defend Iraq," he told Al-Monitor.

Students have conflicting stands. Some have said they enrolled in militias to get out of school and impress their teachers. Others refused to join, saying they plan to serve society and advance their country by completing their education and becoming proficient in their chosen fields.

However, militias are clearly influential in changing students’ convictions and persuading them to join.

“I didn't know much about the effect and threat of terrorism," Hussam Ahmad, a University of Baghdad student, told Al-Monitor. "I thought it was a simple matter and that the government could eliminate it with its military capacities. But after hearing the PMU programs, I realized this was not the case. My country is at risk, and we can only protect it through uniting efforts.”

He added that students’ participation in training and in fighting terrorism is a religious and national duty.

Karim Hassan, an engineering student at the University of Baghdad, believes that militia programs are trying to brainwash students and push them to violence.

“Education is a project to raise generations that would lead the country’s future into a culture of nonviolence and civil life. I believe that the programs of all PMU factions aim at mobilizing society,” he told Al-Monitor.

He added that students need to be aware of the propaganda spread by militia programs, but few students are. The militias aren't just interested in battling the Islamic State. They are recruiting for potential political and military conflicts with other militias or political forces — and they couldn't ask for a richer environment than universities to fulfill their goals.

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