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Iraqi College Kids Spend Summer Break Learning How to Fight ISIS

Where Did ISIS Come From? 3:11

Summer offers American college kids the chance to go on vacation or get a part-time job. But Iraqi students are using their downtime to learn how to fight ISIS.

Image: Shahad Haider
Shahad Haider learns how to disassemble an AK-47. NBC News

Shahad Haider, 25, can usually be found working toward her master's degree in media studies. Now classes have finished for the summer at the University of Baghdad, she is learning how to dismantle and operate an AK-47 assault rifle.

"This is the first time I have ever carried a weapon," she told NBC News during a recent visit to her training session. Haider said she would prefer not to use violence but would be "ready to carry a weapon to fight, in order to defend my country."

Iraq's Education Ministry last month ordered every college and university not in territory controlled by ISIS to train their students to fight the extremists. This was prompted by a call-to-arms by the country's top Shiite cleric.

The 15 days of training can stretch to up to four hours daily. Although it is non-compulsory, the University of Baghdad said more than 100 men and women had joined its program.

Science student Zahra'a Mohammed Abdul Hassan, 21, said she was motivated by ISIS' brutal treatment of women.

"We are facing an enemy who has no mercy toward women, in particular," she said. The atrocities "ISIS committed against all Iraqis, and women in particular, is not connected in any way to Islam," she added.

She has been taught how to take up firing positions, dismantle an assault rifle, and perform first aid.

Image: Zahra'a Mohammed Abdul Hassan
Zahra'a Mohammed Abdul Hassan learns how to operate a rifle. NBC News

Another University of Baghdad student, 21-year-old Sami Aziz Ramzi, said it was ISIS' treatment of his fellow Christians that galvanized his decision to join the sessions.

The training would give him "the will…to defend my country as well as my community," the science student said.

Some of the students trained in the university's program have already traveled to the front line to fight, according to college head of public affairs Adel Abdulrazak al-Gurairi.

"Many were injured and many were martyred," al-Gurairi said. "We are not authorized to send to those students to the front — it is up to them."

Even people who have stayed in Baghdad — where ISIS regularly claims responsibility for bombings — did so because "they felt they had to do something to protect their country," according to al-Gurairi.

Image: University of Baghdad students
University of Baghdad students participating in the anti-ISIS training program during their summer break. NBC News

The students are trained by members of the Iran-backed militia group known as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU.

The University of Baghdad told NBC News that under its program, the PMU only trains students over the age of 18.

However, a report by The Associated Press last month said the PMU had set up its own summer training camps involving children as young as middle-schoolers. The U.S. does not work directly with the Shiite-dominated PMU, but the militia group does work closely with the Iraqi security forces.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said it was "very concerned" by the "allegations on the use of child soldiers," the AP reported. The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support to governments that use child soldiers.

The summer regime may seem extreme to American college kids working office internships, but science student Hassan put things in perspective.

"The Iraqi army and PMU elements are fighting on different fronts under bad conditions … so spending two hours a day [training] for two weeks is not bad compared to what those soldiers face every day," she said.

FROM JUNE 22: Shia Militias Backed By Iran Lead Charge Against ISIS in Ramadi 2:20

Many students undergoing the training shared this view.

"We live in an unstable region, surrounded by many enemies," said 21-year-old Muntaser Ghazi Raheem, a physical education student. "I expect that we might be needed at any time to defend our country."

Raheem was typical among the trainees in that he had never held a gun in his life.

Ali Hassan Abood, a 19-year-old science student, said that he joined the training regime because he had nothing to do with his summer mornings.

"Instead of staying at home, I thought it was better to use my time properly," he said.

Despite being miles away from the frontline, Abood said he wanted to feel like a real soldier so he bought a military uniform from the local market.

"This uniform give me the feeling that I am not a student at the moment, but I am a soldier and ready to defend my country," Abood said. "I am ready to go and fight if I feel that I am needed."