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NEWSWEEK COVER: The Next Jihadists

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2007-01-14 21:54:47     
Newsweek

Last fall Ammar joined the neighborhood watch in his section of Baghdad, a ragtag bunch of men who stand guard nightly at improvised roadblocks and rooftop observation posts. And 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," he tells Newsweek in the January 22 issue (on newsstands Monday, January 15). Ammar is only 17 years old. In this week's cover story, "The Next Jihadists," Newsweek Correspondent Christian Caryl -- along with an international reporting team -- looks at how the U.S. occupation, daily bloodshed and sectarian hatreds are warping young Iraqis like him, laying the seeds of conflict for years to come.

Like many of its neighbors, Iraq is a young country: nearly half the population is under the age of 18. And, as Caryl points out, 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. 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 this latest 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."

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."

Many forces are working against the Iraqi youth. The ongoing violence is forcing many families to move for safety reasons. Baghdad neighborhoods used to be close-knit places where neighbors shared information and helped each other out regardless of sect or ethnicity, Caryl reports. Parents watched after each other's kids; the children had a ready support network. Today, refugees are surrounded by strangers thrown together by sect and defended by militias. Once wrecked, these families have little capacity to rebound. While no reliable figures of kids orphaned or left fatherless by the war exist, the overwhelming majority of Iraqi civilians killed in the sectarian slaughter have been men between the ages of 18 and 40. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society says it's been seeing a stark increase in the number of households run by women -- a problem in traditional Iraqi society, where women rarely work outside the home. In Fallujah, 17-year-old Jumaa Ahmed al-Issawi had to become the primary breadwinner for his family after his father went into hiding, wanted by the Americans. He still attends high school in the mornings, but then drives a taxi to earn money. "I'm exhausted," the tall, athletic teen says, sighing. "At my age it's hard to bear all these miseries and concerns."

Since September, millions of other kids have had to abandon their education for other reasons. The Ministry of Education estimates that only 30 percent of the 3.5 million Iraqi elementary-age kids are attending school now, down from 75 percent last year. Part of the problem, reports Caryl, is that sectarian hatreds roiling society outside have found their way into the classroom. One teacher at a primary school in Baghdad, who asked not to be identified by name for her safety, says many parents pulled their kids out of her school when they learned it was being guarded by the Mahdi Army. "We used to have over 600 kids but now it is no more than 400," she says. According to her, the number of Sunni children in particular is dwindling, replaced by Shiite youth. She also says the education depends "on what sect the teacher is." Kids in other schools have reported being harassed by teachers because of their overtly Sunni or Shiite names.

Money clearly is an element of the militias' allure. Iraqi and U.S. soldiers in the capital trade tales of kids working as spotters, couriers and fighters. Powers likes to point out that when he served in Iraq the going rate to have an IED planted was $1,000, with another $1,000 paid for killing an American. Now, he says, kids will set bombs for as little as $20. Ahmed Ali, 10, was on his way to school in Baghdad one morning when a "smiling man" called him over and asked for his help. The man offered him the princely sum of $35 in return for carrying a canvas bag to a spot nearby. No sooner had Ahmed completed the delivery than he was knocked to the ground by an enormous blast. "I fell down on my face, screaming. I couldn't stop screaming," he recalls. A woman and her child were injured by the bomb.

Whether Iraq's next generation can break out of this cycle of violence may depend on the kids themselves. Thaka, a 14-year-old Baghdadi who saw his father killed before his eyes, is an example. Even now, despite his traumas, he resists the urge for revenge. A studious practitioner of his faith, Thaka finds consolation in the suffering of the great Shiite imams and the belief that a new age of justice and peace is about to dawn. Asked if he wants to kill his father's murderers, he shakes his head: "I don't want to become like them. They are men without religion."

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