Facing Saddam’s Child Soldiers

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

January 14, 2003

Although there is global consensus against the morality of sending children into battle, this terrible practice is now a regular facet of contemporary warfare. There are some 300,000 children under the age of 18 (both boys and girls) presently serving as combatants around the globe, fighting in approximately 75% of the world’s conflicts. A war in Iraq would only boost these numbers.

Among the litany of human rights violations committed by Saddam Husayn is that his regime deliberately recruits children into its armed forces, in violation of both international law and widely accepted moral norms. As a result, U.S. and allied forces must prepare for the fact that they will likely face child soldiers in a potential war with Iraq. They must consider the costs and tough choices now, so that they do not later find themselves ill-equipped or untrained for the unique challenges that child soldiers present.

Child Soldiers in Iraq

Over the past decade, the regime of Saddam Husayn has intentionally laid the groundwork for the use of child soldiers (defined under international law as any child under the age of 18 recruited into an armed organization and/or engaged in political violence), with a broad program of recruitment and training. Since the mid-1990s, there have been yearly military-style summer “boot camps,” organized by the regime for thousands of Iraqi boys. During these 3 week long sessions, boys as young as 10 years old are run through drills, taught the use of small arms, and provided with heavy doses of Ba’athist political indoctrination. The military training camps are often named after resonating current events, to galvanize recruitment and bolster political support (for example, the 2001 summer camp series was named for the “Al Aqsa Intifada”). In addition, since 1998, there have been a series of training and military preparedness programs directed at the entire Iraqi population. Youths as young as 15 have been included in these programs. The preparedness sessions, which generally run for two hours a day over a 40 day span, have mandated drilling and training on small arms.

There are many reason for Iraq’s program of child soldier training and recruitment. A common means for totalitarian regimes to maintain control is to set their country on a constant war footing and militarize society. This justifies heavy hierarchic control and helps divert internal tensions towards external foes. The recruitment, training, and indoctrination of children also offers the regime the opportunity to deepen its reach into Iraqi society. In addition, children make up a large portion of the population in Iraq, as in the wider Arab world; approximately one half of the Iraqi population is under the age of 18 (roughly 11 million out of 22 million total citizens). Thus, this significant youth cohort represents a deep pool of potential forces for the regime, as well as a potential destabilizing threat, if it were not organized toward the regime’s goals.

In addition to these training programs, Iraq has also organized several child soldier units. Some of these units fall under the rubric of the Futuwah (Youth Vanguard) movement, a Ba’ath party organ formed in the late 1970s and aimed at establishing a paramilitary organization among children at secondary school level. In this regime-run program, children as young as 12 are organized into units and receive military training and political indoctrination. Units of this force were even pressed into service during the nadir of Iraqi fortunes in the war against Iran (in the mid-1980s).

The most important Iraqi child soldier units, though, are the Ashbal Saddam (Saddam Lion Cubs). This is a more recent organization, formed after the defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, when the regime’s hold on power faltered. The Ashbal Saddam involve boys between the ages of 10 and 15, who attend military training camps and learn the use of small arms and infantry tactics. The camps involve as much as 14 hours per day of military training and political indoctrination. They also employ training techniques intended to desensitize the youth to violence, including frequent beatings and deliberate cruelty to animals. The exact numbers of the Ashbal Saddam are not known, but there are an estimated 8,000 members in Baghdad alone.

The Ashbal Saddam also acts as a feeder program to the Fidayin Saddam (Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice). The Fidayin is a paramilitary organization controlled by Saddam’s eldest son Uday. It is one of many internal security services that the regime employs to control Iraq and intimidate the Iraqi populace.

The Effect of Children on a Potential Iraqi Battlefield

Given the large number of child soldiers in Iraq and their apparent importance to the regime’s survival strategy, U.S. and allied forces should be prepared to face child soldiers in a potential invasion of Iraq. Based on historical parallels, including the Hitler Jugend (the Hitler Youth, a similar children’s paramilitary program in Nazi Germany), it is most likely that the Ashbal Saddam and other armed Iraqi youths would be deployed in small units, serving as light infantry and irregulars, to defend Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad. Their most likely use will be in small-scale ambushes, sniping, and roadblocks, similar to the Jugend in 1945. It is also possible that they would be employed in terrorist-type operations behind the battlelines. Because Iraq’s child soldiers have been rigorously indoctrinated by the regime, the flow of the war and even the disintegration of resistance by regular Iraqi military forces may have little impact on their actions. Indeed, if the record of other child soldier conflicts holds true, Iraqi child soldiers may become most problematic in the closing stages of the war or even when the war is seemingly over.

Iraq’s employment of child soldiers will present a considerable challenge for U.S. public diplomacy, especially in the Arab world (but also at home), where images of coalition forces fighting Iraqi children could have profound consequences. U.S. forces engaging child soldiers will be a tragedy regardless of the mission’s rationale or level of public support. In the context of an invasion of an Arab state by Westerners, though, the death of any children, even child soldiers, would likely resonate across the Islamic world. The U.S. should expect that these children would be portrayed in the Muslim press as heroic martyrs defending their homes against the American Goliath. These images would obviously hamper U.S. public information efforts to demonstrate the justness of the cause and the special precautions taken to protect innocents.

Given the overwhelming military advantages of the United States, Baghdad’s use of child soldiers is not likely to affect the outcome of a war with Iraq. However, child soldiers could create considerable problems for coalition forces. Experiences from across the globe demonstrate that children can make effective combatants and often operate with unexpected and terrifying audacity, particularly when infused with religious or political fervor, or when under the influence of narcotics. In general, the presence of children on the battlefield adds to the overall confusion of battle. Child soldiers could slow the progress of U.S. forces, particularly when operating in an urban environment, and needlessly add to casualty totals on both sides.

When professional forces face child soldiers, their opponents are still children, a special category of individuals traditionally considered outside the scope of war. Thus, beyond their impact on the battle itself, their use by Iraq presents two added concerns for U.S. forces. First, professional soldiers generally feel great empathy toward children caught up in war. Consequently, engagements with child soldiers have often proven demoralizing for professional troops and affected their unit cohesion. For example, even though U.S. troops were fully committed to the war against Nazi Germany, American units fighting the Hitler Jugend in 1945 had the lowest morale of any U.S. forces during the entire course of the war, even though victory was in sight. Likewise, British forces operating in West Africa in 2001 faced deep problems of clinical depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among individual troops who had faced child soldiers.

Dealing with Iraq Child Soldiers

In a war against Iraq, U.S. troops will be put into a situation where they face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to harm. While they may be youngsters, because of the increasing simplicity and lethality of modern small arms, child soldiers cannot be dismissed as military threats. A bullet from a fourteen year old’s gun can kill just as well as one from a forty year old’s. Therefore, U.S. commanders must prepare their soldiers for the hard decisions they may face, in order to avoid any confusion over rules of engagement or even momentary hesitation prompted by shock at the age of their foes. For example, British Army forces operating in West Africa were unprepared for the psychological impact of fighting child soldiers. In one case, an entire patrol was captured because the commanding officer was unwilling to fire on “…children armed with AKs.”

At the same time, the United States must also be prepared for the impact of Iraqi child soldiers on world opinion. If not carefully managed, this aspect of the information warfare could be easily lost. The United States should anticipate the likely use of child soldiers by Iraq and begin to set the stage for countering this effort through diplomatic means. This includes mobilizing the United Nations, Arab political leaders, and Islamic religious experts to condemn the practice for what it is, a clear violation of both international and Islamic law. The U.S. should be prepared to remind the world of the clear admonition of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu, “It is immoral that adults should want children to fight their wars for them…There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument for arming children.”

The potential of facing Iraqi child soldiers also demands that military adjustments be made as well. Historical experience has demonstrated a number of effective methods to handle combat situations when professional troops are confronted by child soldiers. These include:

  • Recognize the threat from child soldiers. All children are not threats and certainly should not be targeted as such. However, force protection measures must include the possibility—or even likelihood—of child soldiers and child terrorists. This includes changing practices of letting children mingle among pickets and putting children through the same inspection and scrutiny as adults at checkpoints.
  • Develop rules of engagement. Ultimately, U.S. troops in any invasion of Iraq will be placed in the difficult position of having to fire on a child for their own protection. Military leaders must anticipate this terrible dilemma and prepare their soldiers with the strict ROE guidelines on when to take this decision.
  • Utilize fear first, rather than firepower. When U.S. forces do face engagement with child soldier forces, best practice appears to be to hold the threat at a distance and initially fire for shock, to attempt to break up the child units, which often are not cohesive fighting forces. Demonstrative artillery fires (including use of smoke) and helicopter gunship passes and fires have been proven especially effective in shocking and breaking up child soldier forces in other regions.
  • Focus on adult leaders of child soldier units. When forced into close engagement, forces should prioritize the targeting and elimination any adult leaders. Their hold over the unit is often the center of gravity.
  • Employ non-lethal weaponry. Wherever possible, U.S. military commanders and policy-makers should explore options for using non-lethal weapons in situations that involve child soldiers. These may not only be more effective and humane for dealing with child soldiers than other, more traditional, lethal means, but will certainly avoid the terrible public affairs costs.
  • Employ PsyOps. Psychological operations should be integrated into overall efforts, in order to convince child soldiers to stop fighting, leave their units, and begin the process of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
  • Follow-up yields success. The defeat of a child soldier-based opposition does not just take place on the battlefield. U.S. forces should be ready to take measures to quickly welcome and care for child soldier escapees and POWs, so as to encourage others to surrender as well. Once soldiers have ensured that a child does not present a threat, they should address any immediate needs of food, clothing, and/or shelter. As soon as possible, the child should be turned over to health-care or NGO professionals.

  • Explain and blame.
    In responding to any child soldier engagements, public affairs specialists should stress the context under which they occurred and the importance of the overall mission. Military spokespersons should call attention to our efforts to minimize the killing of child soldiers, such as the use of non-lethal weapons, psychological operations, and firing for shock effect. At the same time, military spokespersons should make clear that child soldiers are just as lethal with an assault rifle as an adult. Of greatest importance, U.S. spokesmen should emphasize that blame for child soldier casualties is properly placed on a regime that has illegally forced children into the military sphere and sends them to do its dirty work. They should stress how the regime of Saddam Husayn has intentionally created this system, knowing that it would lead to the deaths of children.
  • Protect our own. Finally, U.S. forces must also be ready to deal with the internal repercussions of engagements with child soldier forces, for this is an added way that their use puts professional forces at a disadvantage. Units may require special post-conflict treatment, akin to what many police organizations offer after shooting incidents. Otherwise, the consequence of being forced to kill children may ultimately undermine unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.


One of the potential costs of a war in Iraq may well be that U.S. military forces are forced to engage in combat with Baghdad’s child soldiers. Saddam Husayn’s deliberate recruitment of children into armed units may be a clear violation of the laws of war, but it is also a fact that U.S. policymakers cannot avoid. Children may not belong on the battlefield, but they may well be present in a war with Iraq. The only question is whether our troops will be prepared.