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Militants use children to do battle in Iraq

As more youths are recruited, boys outnumber foreign fighters at U.S. detention camps.

August 27, 2007|Alexandra Zavis and Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writers

baghdad -- Child fighters, once a rare presence on Iraq's battlefields, are playing a significant and growing role in kidnappings, killings and roadside bombings in the country, U.S. military officials say.

Boys, some as young as 11, now outnumber foreign fighters at U.S. detention camps in Iraq. Since March, their numbers have risen to 800 from 100, said Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, the commander of detainee operations. The Times reported last month that only 130 non-Iraqi fighters were in U.S. custody in Iraq.

Stone attributes the rise in child fighters in the country, in part, to the pressure that the U.S. buildup of troops has placed on the flow of foreign fighters.

Fewer of them are making it into the country, he said, and the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq is having a difficult time recruiting adults locally. Thus, it has turned to children.

"As our operations have increased, Al Qaeda [in Iraq] and others have used more minors in the fight against us, and in the process we have detained more and more juveniles," Stone said.

He said the children make effective fighters because they are easily influenced, don't experience fear in the same way as adults and don't draw as much scrutiny from U.S. forces.

Other causes for the increase in detentions may be that U.S. forces are simply coming into contact with more children because of the troop buildup, and that financial pressures may have pushed some Iraqi families toward the militants.

Stone said some children have told interrogators that their parents encouraged them to do the militants' dirty work because the extremists have deep pockets.

Insurgents typically pay the boys $200 to $300 to plant a bomb, enough to support a family for two or three months, say their Iraqi instructors at a U.S. rehabilitation center.

About 85% of the child detainees are Sunni and the majority live in Sunni Arab-dominated regions in the country's west and north. In these deeply impoverished, violence-torn communities, the men with money and influence are the ones with the most powerful arsenals. These are the children's role models.

The rise of child fighters will eventually make the Iraq conflict more gruesome, said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution expert on child fighters.

He said militant leaders often treat children as a cheap commodity, and peace will be less attainable because "conflict entrepreneurs" now have an established and pliable fighting force in their communities.

Websites feature stories of child martyrs as an inspiration, and on the other side of the sectarian divide, radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army also boasts of youngsters' involvement.

"This shows that the Mahdi are a popular resistance movement against the occupiers. The old men and the young men are on the same field of battle," Sadr spokesman Sheik Ahmad Shebani told the London Daily Telegraph.

The boys are arrested under a wide range of circumstances, and their commitment to insurgents is believed to vary greatly.

Although some of their alleged offenses include kidnappings and killings, the vast majority are held for allegedly planting bombs in the road in exchange for money, authorities said.

The rise in young fighters compounds the savagery that has already shuttered many schools, left children wounded and hungry, and killed parents before children's eyes.

For their American captors, the apparent surge of child fighters confuses enemy and friend on the battlefield even further, and it causes renewed scrutiny of the military's detention policies and lack of judicial access for juvenile detainees in custody.

To accommodate the influx of boys, and to break the hold of the militants, a new education facility opened here Aug. 13.

It sits a bus ride away from Camp Cropper, the U.S. detention area where the boys, between the ages of 11 and 17, live segregated from many others of the estimated 24,000 suspected insurgents in American custody in Iraq.

The new education center replaces Camp Cropper's one-room schoolhouse and accommodates all but 100 who are ineligible for school because they are severely developmentally disabled, ill or too militant.

The students, a quarter of whom are illiterate, study basic Arabic, English, math, geography and science in air-conditioned tent classrooms. Dubbed the House of Wisdom, the classrooms are surrounded by concrete walls topped with razor wire.

In daily civics lessons, the boys study Iraqi history and new government institutions. A team of psychiatrists will provide regular counseling. A large library will hold 4,000 volumes and already has English textbooks, computer manuals and a set of Harry Potter books translated into Arabic.

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