updated 2/24/2007 4:42:54 AM ET 2007-02-24T09:42:54

Toting menacing looking toy guns, young boys swarm around an abandoned car, chanting battle cries of a Shiite militia and pointing their play weapons at the “terrorist” in the driver’s seat.

Outnumbered, the boy playing a would-be suicide bomber surrenders.

On Baghdad’s dusty streets, Iraqi children are playing make-believe war games inspired by the Shiite-Sunni conflict, a development that shows the depth of the city’s rapid and violent break-up along sectarian lines.

Some adults try to discourage such games, fearing they only contribute to sectarian hatred. Others believe there is little they can do to stop it — given the horror that children in Baghdad experience nearly every day.

“Playing such games is normal,” said Rabab Qassim, a school teacher and mother of three from Hurriyah, where Shiite militiamen drove out hundreds of Sunni families last year. “It has become part of the kids’ lives. It is not a figment of their imagination. It is in front of them everywhere and they live it every day.”

Iraq’s children have not escaped the ravages of nearly four years of war and sectarian strife, which escalated during the past year. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of them have been killed or wounded in the violence.

Images of parents weeping over the dead or mangled bodies of their children define the brutality of the conflict.

“You coward! I will kill you,” shouted 6-year-old Haidar Faraj, who played a Shiite militiaman from the Shiite Mahdi Army militia on a recent afternoon in Hurriyah. His younger brother Abbas was the Sunni “terrorist.”

'About 95 percent of the toys I sell are guns'
Abu Ali, 40, who sells toys in Baghdad’s Shorja market, said most of the children who visit his store are looking for the “biggest and most harmful toy guns.”

“About 95 percent of the toys I sell are guns,” said Abu Ali, who refused to give his full name for security reasons.

So many toy guns — some of which look real at first glance — are circulating in the city that Trade Minister Abed Falah al-Sudani is considering banning them.

Kids who can’t afford toy weapons simply use their imagination. Take a wooden stick, tie on an empty water bottle with a black sock and presto — a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Boys dart behind parked cars or sprawl on the ground and pretend to fire them.

The names of the games vary depending on the neighborhood.

In Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the “bad guys” are “Wahabbis,” or Sunni religious extremists. Sometimes the game becomes “Sadr City vs Azamiyah,” referring to a nearby Sunni neighborhood.

In New Baghdad, a mixed area where Shiites are most numerous, kids play “police and terrorists.”

Some of the children even dress up in black shirts that resemble Mahdi Army attire. Those playing the cops put on black ski masks, often used by Baghdad police to hide their identity.

Games, real warfare eclipse schoolwork
“These kids are not only mimicking what they see on TV, but also some of the real violence they see,” said Sabah Mohammed Ali, a Shiite policeman whose two sons — Mohammed, 11, and Mustapha, 8 — are avid players of such games.

“I try to discourage them from playing and I talk to them about Shiites and Sunnis living in peace, but they keep going back to the same game,” said Ali, 44, who comes from Sadr City.

Some Iraqis worry that the war games are contributing to an increase in aggressive behavior among children, many of whom are losing interest in their schoolwork. It’s hard to tell whether war games — or the general state of life in Baghdad — are to blame.

“They challenge teachers and even threaten them,” said biology teacher Abu Ali. “They are so frustrated and do not care about their work because they think they may end up displaced or killed, so why should they bother to study.”

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