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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Young children fight U.S. troops in Iraq

Shiite militias are encouraging children — some as young as 6 or 7 — to hurl stones and gasoline bombs at U.S. convoys, hoping to lure American troops into ambushes or provoke them into shooting back, U.S. soldiers say.

Gangs of up to 100 children assemble in Sadr City, stronghold of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, and in nearby neighborhoods, U.S. officers said in interviews this week.

American soldiers have seen young men, their faces covered by bandanas, talking with the children before the rock-throwing attacks begin — and sometimes handing out slingshots so the volleys will be more accurate, the troops said.

"It's like a militia operation. They'll mass rocks on the last or second-to-last vehicle" in a U.S. patrol, said Capt. Chris L'Heureux, 30, of Woonsocket, R.I. "There's no doubt in my mind that they're utilizing these kids in a deliberate, thought-out way."

Al-Sadr's followers insist they are not organizing attacks by children.

"Such behavior by Iraqi children is spontaneous and the natural reaction from innocent children who are witnessing horrible deeds committed by the occupation forces in Iraq," Ali al-Yassiri, an aide to al-Sadr, told The Associated Press.

Militants have used children before. Marines in the volatile city of Ramadi say Sunni Arab insurgents often send children to check out U.S. defenses or warn of approaching patrols. And Israeli troops have long faced stone-throwing Palestinian kids.

But the increased use of children in the high-profile Baghdad battle poses a new challenge to American troops seeking to curb Iraqi militias. The tactic also shows the lengths to which militants will go in confronting U.S. troops in a high-stakes fight for control of the capital.

The incidents have seemed to increase since U.S. soldiers moved their security crackdown into Shiite neighborhoods surrounding eastern Baghdad's Sadr City. The U.S. crackdown in the capital is aimed at curbing the power of the Mahdi Army and other sectarian militias.

At one checkpoint, soldiers said hundreds of rocks rained down on their vehicles as they sealed off a neighborhood during a house-to-house search for weapons and militants.

U.S. officers believe the militias are trying to provoke American soldiers into firing on the children or chasing the soldiers into areas where snipers lie in wait.

"Right now the reason we're not (pursuing) is because it's a trap," 1st Lt. Bernard Gardner, 25, of Kinnear, Wyo., said as a group of children pelted his Stryker armored vehicle with rocks. "There's probably one or two snipers out there waiting for us to get in range."

The soldiers are also leery of firing even warning shots in return — worried that could enflame sectarian passions and turn Shiite civilians against the Americans. Part of the offensive's aim is to bolster public confidence in coalition and Iraqi forces.

"If we point a gun at a kid and they take a photo of it, they'll make a zillion flyers out of it," Gardner said. "That's why we have to be so delicate with the rock throwers."

He said just one bullet fired near a group of children would be "like the shot heard 'round the world."

Most children, even in traditionally hostile areas, typically approach U.S. troops to ask for water or candy, not to ambush them. Even as unruly gangs roamed the areas near Sadr City on one recent day, soldiers kept playing with curious children on tamer blocks nearby.

Army intelligence officers say they predicted before the offensive began this summer that militants in Baghdad would make use of children. As expected, the harassment started with small groups of youngsters throwing stones, then escalated into bigger groups of children hurling larger rocks and even pieces of cement blocks.

Attackers are becoming even more brazen: Children recently have begun hurling bottles of oil and even a homemade firebomb at U.S. vehicles, soldiers say.

One child recently jumped on a passing convoy and untied the straps on a load of supplies. Another young boy ran alongside a moving Stryker vehicle before throwing a rock at a soldier.

No serious injuries have been reported in the attacks by children, although one platoon commander was hit in the face with a rock.

Since firing back is considered out of the question, U.S. soldiers have resorted to other methods to control the children.

On a major road leading into Shaab, a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, U.S. soldiers stopped all civilian vehicles and pedestrians to pressure adults into dispersing a group of children that were attacking American vehicles.

"If you can't control your kids, you can't use this road," yelled Sgt. 1st Class Eric Sheehan, 33, of Jennerstown, Pa. One pedestrian responded: "But they're not from this neighborhood."

Some adults eventually persuaded the children to leave — for at least a few hours.

"They're gone," Sheehan said. "For now."

Other Iraqi adults have been more helpful. After several rocks were thrown at passing U.S. vehicles in Shaab, soldiers followed one child home. When soldiers told his mother what had happened, she slapped her son across the face in front of them.

Soldiers are also using new tools, such as high-decibel speakers, to scare away children. Some youngsters scampered away this week as soon as a soldier pointed a hand-held speaker in their direction.

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