By Christian Caryl
Jan. 22, 2007 issue - Ammar will tell you he's proud to be carrying a gun. His father was a brigadier in Saddam Hussein's Army, a man who saw combat in his country's several wars, and from an early age Ammar had accompanied him to the shooting range. "I got used to the sound of guns then," Ammar says. So he was ready, last fall, when the imam in his Baghdad neighborhood urged residents to take up arms against the invader—who in this case happened to be members of a Shiite militia trying to push into the predominantly Sunni area. Ammar joined the neighborhood watch, a ragtag bunch of men who stand guard nightly at improvised roadblocks and rooftop observation posts. In mid-October Ammar fought his first big battle against soldiers from the Mahdi Army—"the garbage collectors and robbers," as he contemptuously refers to the Shiite militia. He says he put his Kalashnikov assault rifle to good use: "I think I injured or even killed two of them. Our group killed more than six of them that night."
Ammar is 17 years old. A tall, thin boy with a beard just starting up, he has already seen far more of the dark side of life than anyone really should. As the grisly toll of Baghdad's death squads spiked last fall, he helped out in the room at his local mosque where bodies are ritually washed before they are buried. Some corpses had been burned with chemicals. Limbs had been cut off, eyes torn out. One day at the beginning of November, a neighbor of Ammar's, a college student and fellow Sunni, disappeared at an impromptu checkpoint set up by the Mahdi Army. When the neighbor's body finally turned up at the mosque for burial, Ammar saw that he had been beheaded. (He recognized his friend from the clothing.) "I ran into the garden and threw up," Ammar says. Then he vowed revenge.
Sectarian warfare is reshaping Iraq in all sorts of malevolent ways day in and day out. But it is also forging the future by poisoning the next generation of Iraqis. Like many of its neighbors, Iraq is a young country: nearly half the population is under the age of 18. And those children have had a particularly turbulent upbringing. Kids like Ammar were born in the aftermath of one debilitating war, against neighboring Iran, then suffered two others and years of impoverishing sanctions in between. They are especially vulnerable to the demons that now grip Iraq. Hassan Ali, a sociologist at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, estimates that at least 1 million Iraqi kids have seen their lives damaged by the war—they've lost parents and homes, watched as their communities have been torn apart by sectarian furies. "These children will come to believe in the principles of force and violence," says Ali. "There's no question that society as a whole is going to feel the effects in the future"—and not only Iraqi society. From the Middle East to Europe to America, violence may well beget violence around the world for years to come.
As a fresh wave of U.S. troops heads to Baghdad—part of a last-ditch "surge" meant to stabilize and rebuild the Iraqi capital—it's worth asking whether we've already lost the larger battle in Iraq. Jonathan Powers, a former U.S. Army captain who served in Iraq in 2003 and now directs a nonprofit working with kids there, notes that the ongoing violence is creating a generation that is undereducated, unemployed, traumatized and, among boys in particular, ripe for the vengeful appeals of militias and insurgent groups. Already some of these kids are taking up arms—mostly against members of the opposite sect, whether Sunni or Shia, but often against American troops as well. "Instead of training them to rebuild their country, they are being trained to use weapons to destroy it," Powers says. If the pattern isn't changed, "we will be fighting these same youths in the future for peace in the Middle East."
And beyond. French scholar Gilles Kepel, author of "Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam," warns that many of these kids, raised on anger and fear, are potentially rebels without clear causes. "What will their jihads become?" he asks. "Are they going to grow up to kill each other, or will they turn their weapons against the West?" If somehow peace can be won, they may give up their guns, says Kepel, as most of those in the war generations of Lebanon, Algeria and the Balkans have done in recent memory.
But what's clear is that we're far closer to the beginning of this cycle of violence than to its end. Al Qaeda is not known to have specifically appealed to Iraq's kids, and most intelligence warnings about the conflict there have focused on the adult jihadists who are gaining on-the-ground experience in the fight. But radical groups have always found their most ready recruits in societies undergoing profound and violent change. The closest analogy may be to the Taliban in Afghanistan. They filled their ranks with the orphans of war—very often refugee kids—and offered them a different kind of family structure cemented by the bonds of Islam.
Iraq is full of such kids. Ask Thaka, a 14-year-old Baghdadi, about soccer or computer games and the gangly boy's finely featured face lights up—brief moments of respite from the burden he so clearly bears. On a warm June evening in 2005, Thaka and his father, Talib, were closing up their clothing shop in the south Baghdad district of Doura. Suddenly an unknown man stepped out of a car parked nearby and, without warning, fired a handgun into Talib's head and body—12 shots, until the magazine was empty. "I still remember the sound of the bullets," says Thaka. "It's like a dream to me." He fled, howling, deep into the city. His family could not find him for hours.
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