Iran-backed militias are increasing efforts to recruit teenagers and youth in several cities in northern and western Iraq, security officials and activists said.
Kataib Hizbullah, Harakat al-Nujaba and Saraya al-Khorasani are among the militias preying on vulnerable Iraqi youth, they said, noting that the militias plan to use these recruits to pursue Iran's interests in Iraq and the region.
This poses a threat to Iraq's stability and security, they said.
The militias are taking advantage of people's poverty as communities rebuild after "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) rule by promising money to new recruits and granting them what they describe as "immunity" if they join.
Parents in the Anbar province border town of al-Qaim told police their children have received "volunteer forms" from an Iran-backed militia, a senior Iraqi official in al-Qaim told Diyaruna.
In exchange for joining the ranks of the militia, they are offered a monthly wage and bonuses, the official said, asking that his own name be withheld.
"The police have verified this information from several individuals and families in the city," he said. "The positive thing is that local residents are not receptive to such campaigns."
"The goal of these militias is to create local agents inside several cities where they have a presence, so that when the new government is formed, they can re-emerge in a new guise," he said.
"They also are trying to demonstrate that their hostile operations against the international coalition forces that are helping Iraq in the war on terrorism are supported by all types of Iraqis, which is deceptive," he said.
"Everyone knows that they are operating under Iranian guidance," he added.
Sheikh Mazahim al-Huwayet, spokesman for the northern Ninawa tribes, described a similar situation in Ninawa province.
"The militias are seeking to recruit youths and even children across parts of Ninawa under a variety of pretexts," he told Diyaruna.
"They want to create loyalists in the area so that if they leave, there will be people to spread their ideology and carry out their attacks," he said.
Iran's ulterior motives
Mohammed al-Jubouri, who requested the use of a pseudonym to protect his family, told Diyaruna his 16-year-old son was nearly recruited by Harakat al-Nujaba, but the family was able to save him from making a grave mistake.
The teenager was approached as he was working at a shop in al-Biaj, south of Mosul, and "was promised a gun, a badge that gives him immunity and 400,000 Iraqi dinars ($339) a month, which is double what he is making", his father said.
"I would not have known about any of this, were it not for his mother, who told me days later," al-Jubouri said. "Thank God we were barely able to pull him back from the abyss."
The militias have bigger plans than merely creating Iranian agents and supporters among the local population, said Iraqi security expert Fuad Ali.
"These militias are smuggling artefacts, drugs and banned material into Syria and from there to the Lebanese Hizbullah, and vice versa, so they might use recruits for these illegal activities," he told Diyaruna.
Anyone who volunteers to join these militias is no different from those involved with ISIS, as both are harming Iraq as a nation, he said.
The militias' recruitment efforts targeting teenagers and youth is yet another misstep taken by these "tools of Iran", Mustaqbal party president and former Iraqi MP Entifadh Qanbar told Diyaruna.
After the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilisation Forces deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, he said, Iran-backed militias in Iraq are now leaderless and rudderless.
These militias are "clamouring for influence", he said, and eager to curry favour with the Iranian regime by bringing in new recruits.
"But the game is now over," Qanbar said, noting that most Iraqis are not so easily fooled by the schemes of the Iranian regime and its proxies.