x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iraqi teens forced into suicide bombings

An insurgent sheikh visits homes, persuading young boys to join the militia and trains them to carry out attacks.

BAGHDAD // Ahmed was just 14 when insurgents came to his house in Baghdad and, according to his family, tried to recruit him and also his teenage brother to fight against the US military. The boys had heard from school friends about a new resistance group, one that would let them fight for God and their country. Then, one month later, they had heard some of their peers boasting about being members, boasting about carrying a pistol and a Quran.

Soon after that a man with a white beard wearing a sheikh's robes came to the door of their home in Ghazaliya, west Baghdad. He was flanked by four young fighters carrying rifles and as Mohammed, Ahmed's older brother, recalled he told them they must fight if only to avenge their father's death. As the eldest male in the house, it had been Mohammed who answered the door. "The sheikh asked if I was Mohammed," the 16-year-old said in an interview. He spoke on condition that his full identity not be revealed because of fears about his safety. "I told him I was. He said: 'You and your brother have been called by God to receive the satisfaction of revenge against the infidels who killed your father'."

Mohammed, a short, stocky teenager with a sparse adolescent moustache, said he had not known how to answer and made no reply. So the man asked him again to join them, and again got no reply. "I was very afraid and didn't know what to say," Mohammed said. "The sheikh looked over my shoulder and saw my mother and told her that it was best for us to join him. Then he said: 'I will give you two days to make your decision' and he left." Umm Mohammed, the boy's widowed mother, did not need that long. She packed some bags and they left the house the next day, to live with her brother in the Jihad neighbourhood. That was in August - long after the fighting in Baghdad had receded from its worst levels - and they have not been back home since.

Ghazaliya had been a wealthy middle-class area before slowly becoming a stronghold of the insurgency after the US-led invasion of 2003. The gateway into Baghdad from Anbar province, it also became the scene of some of the most vicious bloodletting in the sectarian war that tore through Iraq after the 2006 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra by Sunni extremists. Shiite militia fighters to the north pushed into Ghazaliya, a mainly Sunni district, which then looked to al Qa'eda-style extremists for protection. The corpses began to pile up: there was a notorious body dumping site, where up to a dozen mutilated bodies would be left each week.

Mohammed and Ahmed's father, a truck driver, was among those killed in the communal violence of 2006. A Sunni, he is believed to have been murdered by a Shiite death squad although no one knows who actually committed the crime. The insurgent sheikh visited the family home when Ghazaliya was supposed to be largely under the control of US and Iraqi forces, in conjunction with sahwa councils. The sahwa or "awakening" councils are effectively local militias - usually Sunni and often former insurgents - that turned their guns on al Qa'eda-style religious extremists. Umm Mohammed, a teaching assistant at a state-run school, said that militants still appeared to be strong. "The [Shiite] militias stole my husband and then the [Sunni] terrorists wanted to steal my sons," she said. "We have had nothing but fear from their war and now they are trying to plant their bad ideas into the children." Young teenagers have, according to the US and Iraqi authorities, been involved in insurgent attacks, including suicide bombs. In February, the US military aired a video it said had been seized in a raid on an al Qa'eda base. It showed heavily armed boys, some as young as 11, being trained to carry out kidnappings and assassinations. The film also showed the children declaring their allegiance to the Islamic militants. The US military says it also has evidence of al Qa'eda entering schools and spreading propaganda there. Mohammed said some of his school-aged peers, together with slightly older boys, had decided to follow the sheikh. "They were talking about killing anyone who co-operates with the Americans, and saying that the [Iraqi] government army were traitors," he said. "They don't like the sahwa councils, and say they have betrayed us, too. "One of my friends, his name is Riad, he's 17-years-old, said the government is against all Shiites because they want to clean us from our areas. He said it is time for us to defend ourselves." Ahmed, the younger brother, insisted he wanted to become a doctor or an engineer, not a militant. "I lost my father and do not want anyone else to be killed," he said. "My mother wants me to be a doctor and I want that, too." Ali Al Issawi, a retired Iraqi army officer who now serves as a private security consultant in Baghdad, said there were indications insurgents were attempting to build up a network of adolescent fighters. "There are reports of young men - boys ages 15 or younger - attacking targets in Ghazaliya, including a house occupied by a Shiite family," he said. "Al Qa'eda is under pressure, but it will use any tactics it thinks will work to fight on. Boys who have had family killed are sometimes angry and fragile. They are vulnerable to recruitment." nlatif@thenational.ae