As the prospect of an armed conflict with Iraq looms, U.S. analysts say the government of Saddam Hussein is forcing thousands of children to prepare for war and, in some cases, join the military. The analysts say this presents the potential for a humanitarian nightmare, as professional soldiers from the United States and other countries could find themselves fighting Iraqi children who have been armed and trained to kill.
U.S. military analysts and activists say among the human-rights violations committed by Saddam Hussein is that his government is deliberately recruiting children into its armed forces, a violation of international law.
Peter Singer is a senior foreign policy analyst for the Washington-based Brookings Institution who has researched the issue of Iraq's child soldiers.
Mr. Singer says tens-of-thousands of Iraqi children have been trained and are likely to fight if a U.S.-led military coalition attacks Saddam Hussein. "They will be deployed in ways essentially to slow down allied forces as they advance. This could be everything from deploying them at roadblocks and ambushes, and used as snipers. The particular worry is if this takes place within an urban battlefield environment. There is also a concern that some of these children might be convinced to act as the equivalent of terrorist-type strikes behind the battle lines, hitting supply lines and sacrificing themselves in that manner," he said.
Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst for the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.
Ms. Stohl says child soldiers in Iraq are trained like regular fighters. "These children participate in three-week programs. These are for kids age 10 to 15. They undergo, very similar to, what our armed forces go through in basic training. They are taught, they have weapons training. They take part in hand-to-hand combat lessons, infantry tactics, small arms use. They are trained to repel from helicopters. Some of these programs are known to last up to 14-hours a day," she said.
Ms. Stohl says the Iraqi government puts pressure on parents to send their children to camps for military training.
"According to the State Department families that refuse to enroll their children in programs like these were threatened with the loss of their food ration cards. In other cases the State Department found that children were denied school examination results if they had not registered in one particular program. So it is certainly a widespread kind of military indoctrination and training program that goes on throughout the country of Iraq," he said.
Analysts say in the event of war, Iraq's use of child soldiers will present a major challenge to American public diplomacy.
Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution says television images of coalition forces fighting Iraqi children could have profound consequences on public opinion in the United States and especially in the Arab world.
"If you have any images of dead Iraqi children those will playback on the American TV image and people will say, 'My God how did this happen? What is the rationale for this? I thought we were going to be greeted in a different manner when we entered into Iraq'. So you have a situation where the public support is already sort of mixed and the worry is that this might undercut it," he said. "Now take how that might play out in the American media and multiply it by 100 and that is how it might play out in the Arab press. The worry there is that these children will be painted, not as children that are in essence being used and sacrificed by Saddam Hussein, but as children who are standing up to defend their homes from an American Goliath, an American onslaught."
Mr. Singer says coalition forces are probably unprepared for the psychological impact of fighting child soldiers.
He points out that an entire British Army patrol was captured in West Africa three-years ago, because the commanding officer was unwilling to fire on "children armed with AK-47s."
Analysts say coalition governments need to train soldiers to prepare for the reality of facing Iraqi children in combat.