US troops might end up fighting Iraqi child soldiers

IRAQ: COUNTDOWN TO WAR

MILITARY STRATEGY

Saddam has trained children as young as 10 to fight through ambushes, sniping, and terrorist-type operations, reports DERWIN PEREIRA

AMERICAN GIs may have a psychological battle on their hands if they invade Iraq.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has trained children – some as young as 10 – to confront them in small-scale ambushes, sniping, roadblocks and terrorist-type operations behind the battle lines.

A recent report from the respected Washington-based Brookings Institute suggested that these ‘child soldiers’ could become problematic for US troops even if they have overwhelming military superiority over Baghdad.

The report noted: ‘Because Iraq’s child soldiers have been rigorously indoctrinated by the regime, the flow of the war and even the disintegration of resistance by regular Iraqi military forces may have little impact on their actions.’

The presence of children on the battlefield adds to the overall confusion of battle. Child soldiers could slow the progress of US forces, particularly when operating in an urban environment, and needlessly add to casualty totals on both sides.

Complicating this, it added, was the impact this would have on public opinion – especially in the Arab world.

‘The US should expect that these children would be portrayed in the Muslim press as heroic martyrs defending their homes against the American Goliath,’ said military analyst Peter Singer, who authored the report.

The report disclosed that Mr Saddam had laid the groundwork for the use of child soldiers over the last 10 years by extensive recruitment and training.

In addition to the boot camps, Iraq has also organised several child soldier units.

Some of these outfits fall under the rubric of the Futuwah or Youth Vanguard movement, a Ba’ath party organ formed in the late 1970s and aimed at setting up a paramilitary organisation among children at secondary school level.

Dr Singer said that units of this force were even pressed into service during the nadir of Iraqi fortunes in the war against Iran in the mid-1980s.

The most important Iraqi child soldier unit, however, is the Ashbal Saddam or Saddam’s Lion Cubs that was formed after the 1991 Gulf War defeat. There are an estimated 8,000 members in Baghdad alone now.

These involve boys between the ages of 10 and 15, who attend military training camps and learn the use of small arms and infantry tactics.

The camps involve as much as 14 hours of training and political indoctrination every day. They also employ training techniques intended to desensitise the youth to violence, including frequent beatings and deliberate cruelty to animals.

The Ashbal Saddam also acts as a feeder programme to the Fidayin Saddam or Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice.

The Fidayin, one of many internal security services Baghdad employs to intimidate its people, is a paramilitary organisation controlled by Mr Saddam’s eldest son Uday.

The report noted that historically, fighting child soldiers have often proven ‘demoralising’ for professional troops and affected their unit cohesion.

For example, American troops fighting the Hitler Jugend or Hitler Youth in 1945 had the lowest morale of an US forces during the entire course of war.

Likewise, British forces operating in West Africa in 2001 suffered clinical depression and stress disorder after facing youngsters in battle.

Dr Singer said that the challenge for American troops was to prepare for the unthinkable – confronting children in war. This included coming up with better rules of engagement and psychological operations to convince these youths to leave their military units.

‘In a war against Iraq, US troops will be put into a situation where they face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to harm.

‘Because of the increasing simplicity and lethality of modern small arms, child soldiers cannot be dismissed as military threats. A bullet from the gun of a 14-year-old can kill just as well as one from a 40-year-old.’

SUMMER BOOT CAMPS

CHILDREN make up a large portion of the population in Iraq, as in the wider Arab world. About half of the Iraq’s 22 million population is under the age of 18.

This has allowed Baghdad to deepen its reach into Iraqi society, through, for example, its annual military-style summer ‘boot camps’ for Iraqi boys.

During these three-week-long sessions, children as young as 10 are put through drills, taught to use small arms, and indoctrinated.

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