Iraqi Deserters

In case of war, those who oppose the Iraqi regime will suffer the most

Saddam Hussein in fear about the loyalty of his troops

When during the second Gulf War in 1991 the defeat of Iraqi troops became obvious, mass desertions occurred. Many of those who deserted fell victim to bombardments by the then anti-Iraq coalition. Others were caught by Iraqi security forces, which quickly reorganised after it became clear that the USA were not interested in toppling Saddam. Nevertheless, the number of desertions has remained high ever since: it is estimated that 13,000 deserters fled to Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq between 1990 and 1994 [1].

The precise penalties for draft evasion and desertion are not known. Important decisions in Iraq are made on an ad hoc basis through Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) Decrees and, due to the closed ness of Iraqi society, it is sometimes hard to judge which decrees are still valid and which have been replaced by other decrees. According to Decree 10/1988 - which was in force during the second Gulf War - desertion for more than one year, or several instances of desertion carried the death sentence. It is, however, not clear if this decree still applies. [2]

There are several reports that in the 1990s the amputation of one ear and tattooing of a line on the forehead was practised as punishment for desertion (decree 115/1994). Thousands of deserters fell victim to this inhumane practice, which the Iraqi government justified with reference to the Sharia. Several reports indicated that this practice was stopped in 1996, but the details of the new decree (81/1996) never became public.

More recent reports suggest that amputations and branding continued after 1996. [3] An Iraqi refugee, who deserted at 22 years, describes the practice:

"Since city districts are systematically combed by Party officials, I was arrested and taken roughly two weeks later to the military hospital. There were about two hundred of us that day, not just deserters. There were also people who had 'made false statements' according to party informers. We were lined up waiting our turn. They tied our hands behind our backs and then took us to an empty room with only one bed.

I'll never forget the cries when the ear was cut off with a scalpel. There was no anaesthetic, no interrogation. They cut off the ear, applied a piece of cotton and then moved on to the next one. This happened at the military hospital in El Qadissiyah. We were like cattle; we were called forward one after another. They had to have the entire ear excised so that it would be seen. I saw one young man with blood streaming from his nose, crazy with pain: he was jumping around like a chicken with its neck cut, and no one took any notice. Some people had both ears cut off." [4]

In 1998 the death penalty was reintroduced as a punishment for desertion. This is a hint that in spite of harsh punishment, desertion still occurred on a large scale. As cities are not a safe place to hide, many flee to the countryside, or - which is the safest option - to the Kurdish controlled north of Iraq. But even there Saddam Hussein's security forces are active.

With the renewed threat of war desertions seem to be on the increase again. In March 2002, Iraq Press reported that the number of desertions had reached an alarming high level - up to 40% of those called up didn't report for military service. [5] This lead to the cancellation of leave for soldiers, and an increased hunt for deserters. [6] Meanwhile even members of the governing Ba'ath party face punishment, if they know of a relative who deserted, and don't report him to the security forces.

In spite of harsh punishment it can be expected that the number of desertions will increase even further as the war approaches [7]. Only very few of these deserters will manage to escape to the Western/Northern countries - most will hide within Iraq, or try their luck in the Kurdish controlled North. They will need our support at least as much as do US or UK deserters, who refuse to fight in the war. Unfortunately it isn't possible yet to establish support structures for Iraqi deserters who don't manage to escape to the West.

The fact that in spite of draconian punishment there are that many deserters points to the fragility of the Iraqi regime. It can be expected that especially those who oppose the regime will suffer the most should a new war begin.

Andreas Speck
War Resisters' International


[1] De Volkskrant, 2 November 1994
[2] Human Rights Watch Middle East 1995: Iraqs brutal decrees. Amputation, branding and the death penalty. New York 1995
[3] International Federation of the Human Right Leagues: Iraq: an untolerable, forgotten and unpunished repression. Paris, 2002
[4] International Federation of the Human Right Leagues: Iraq: an untolerable, forgotten and unpunished repression. Paris, 2002
[5] Desertion reaches alarming rates in Iraqi army. Iraq Press, 30 March 2002
[6] Iraq army cancels leave, mounts patrols to hunt down deserters. Iraq Press, 21 July 2002
[7] Army desertions soar as US steps up war speculation. Iraq Press, 6 September 2002; Sweep to hunt down army deserters. Iraq Press, 7 November 2002


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