American and British forces sent to Iraq may have to fight units of child soldiers trained to mount ambushes, sniper attacks and road blocks, according to US military analysts.
The Pentagon has no official plans on how to deal with child soldiers – leaving its troops vulnerable to deadly attacks from seemingly harmless children as well as the psychological trauma of having to kill children. Experts say the Pentagon's public relations operation is also not prepared to deal with having such images broadcast in the Arab world.
Experts have said the Iraqi regime has been intensely training children aged 10 to 15. The training camps for these units, known as Ashbal Saddam or Saddam Lion Cubs, involve up to 14 hours a day of weapons drill and political indoctrination.
In a recent briefing document, Peter Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution think-tank, said there were up to 8,000 such child soldiers in Baghdad alone. He said that as with the Hitler Youth, which fought in the battle for Berlin, the Iraqi child soldiers could "operate with unexpected and terrifying audacity".
He added: "If the record of other child-soldier conflicts holds true, Iraqi child soldiers may become the most problematic in the closing stages of the war or even when the war is seemingly over. [They] will also present a considerable challenge for US public diplomacy, especially in the Arab world where images of coalition forces fighting Iraqi children could have profound consequences."
Experts say troops who encounter child soldiers are usually unwilling to return fire and suffer severe trauma if they have to shoot. In September 2000, British soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment were taken hostage in Sierra Leone by child soldiers, largely because the commanding officer was not prepared to "fire on children armed with AK-47s".
Rachel Stohl, an analyst with the Centre for Defence Information, said the first American casualty in Afghanistan was shot by a 14-year-old. "Ultimately, they have to be treated as soldiers," she said.
Despite such warnings, the Pentagon says it has provided no special training to its troops on how to deal with child soldiers. Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Compton, a spokesman for US Central Command, said: "I am sure if we encounter them we will deal with them. But there is no special planning I am aware of."
Analysts say the only element of the American armed forces that has studied fighting child soldiers is the Marine Corps. A retired army colonel, Charles Borchini, now attached to the corps's Centre for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, said troops had to be ready to encounter child soldiers "in theatre".
He said training should lay out the rules of engagement, look at ways of countering child soldiers and prepare to deal with the trauma suffered by soldiers who have to kill children.
"Child soldiers are a problem all over the world but it is something we in the West are not accustomed to," he said. "We raise our own children and bring them up and having to fight children is not something we are ready for."
Major Jim Gray, a Royal Marine who served in Sierra Leone on attachment with the UN, told a seminar organised by Col Borchini: "You combine the fact that [the child soldiers] are on drugs, you give them a weapon, and they behave as if they were on a playground, and it is terrifying."
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