The story of a 6-year-old Afghan boy who says he thwarted an effort by Taliban militants to trick him into being a suicide bomber provoked tears and anger at a meeting of tribal leaders.
The account from Juma Gul, a dirt-caked child who collects scrap metal for money, left American soldiers dumbfounded that a youngster could be sent on such a mission. Afghan troops crowded around the boy to call him a hero.
Though the Taliban dismissed the story as propaganda, at a time when U.S. and NATO forces are under increasing criticism over civilian casualties, both Afghan tribal elders and U.S. military officers said they were convinced by his dramatic account.
Juma said that sometime last month Taliban fighters forced him to wear a vest they said would spray out flowers when he touched a button. He said they told him that when he saw American soldiers, "throw your body at them."
The militants allegedly cornered Juma in a Taliban-controlled district in southern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. Their target was an impoverished youngster being raised by an older sister — but also one who proved too street-smart for their plan.
"When they first put the vest on my body I didn't know what to think, but then I felt the bomb," Juma told The Associated Press as he ate lamb and rice after being introduced to the elders at this joint U.S.-Afghan base in Ghazni. "After I figured out it was a bomb, I went to the Afghan soldiers for help."
While Juma's story could not be independently verified, local government leaders backed his account and the U.S. and NATO military missions said they believed his story.
Abdul Rahim Deciwal, the chief administrator for Juma's village of Athul, brought the boy and an older brother, Dad Gul, to a weekend meeting between Afghan elders and U.S. Army Col. Martin P. Schweitzer.
Schweitzer called the Taliban's attempt "a cowardly act."
Several elders wept
As Deciwal told Juma's story, 20 Afghan elders repeatedly clicked their tongues in sadness and disapproval. When the boy and his brother were brought in, several of the turban-wearing men welled up, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs.
"If anybody has a heart, then how can you control yourself (before) these kids?" Deciwal said in broken English.
Wallets quickly opened, and the boys were handed $60 in American and Afghan currency — a good chunk of money in a country where teachers and police earn $70 a month.
Afghan officials described the boys as extremely poor, and Juma said he is being raised by his sister because his father works in a bakery in Pakistan and his mother lives and does domestic work in another village.
"I think the boy is intelligent," Deciwal said. "When he comes from the enemy he found a checkpoint of the ANA (Afghan National Army), and he asked the ANA: 'Hey, can you help me? Somebody gave me this jacket and I don't know what's inside but maybe something bad.'"
Lt. Col. George Graff, a father of five who attended the meeting, also teared up.
"Relating to them as a father and trying to fathom somebody using one of my children for that kind of a purpose, jeez, it just tore me up," said Graff, a National Guard soldier from St. George, Utah. "The depths that these people will go to get what they want, which is power for themselves — it's just disgusting."
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, denied the militant group uses child fighters, saying it has hundreds of adults ready for suicide missions.
"We don't need to use a child," Ahmadi told the AP by satellite phone. "It's against Islamic law, it's against humanitarian law. This is just propaganda against the Taliban."
However, a gory Taliban video that surfaced in April showed militants instructing a boy of about 12 as he beheaded an alleged traitor with a large knife. U.N. officials condemned the act as a war crime.
Fidgety but smiling during all the attention, Juma told the AP that he had been scared when he was surrounded by Taliban fighters. He cupped his hands together to show the size of the bomb, then ran his hands along his waist to show where it was on his body.
A fan of soccer, Juma said his favorite subject in school is Pashto, his native language, but he also showed off a little English, shyly counting "1, 2, 3" before breaking out in an oversize smile.
Raised in a country where birthdays are not always carefully tracked, Juma said he is 4. But he looks older and Afghan officials said he is about 6. His brother appears to be a year or so older.
Their village lies in Ghazni province's Andar district, a Taliban stronghold targeted this month in a joint Afghan-U.S. operation. The region remains dangerous and Afghan elders worry for Juma's safety.
'Reason to pause'
Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said he was "a bit skeptical" about Juma's story at first, "but everything I've heard makes me more and more comfortable."
Thomas said the case would force soldiers to think twice before assuming children are safe.
"This is one incident. We hope it doesn't repeat itself. But it gives us reason to pause, to be extra careful," he said. "We want to publicize this as much as we can to the Afghan people so that they can protect their children from these killers."
Col. Sayed Waqef Shah, a religious and cultural affairs officer for the Afghan army, wiped away tears after seeing Juma. "Whenever I see this kind of action from the Taliban, if I am able to arrest them, I'll kill them on the spot," he said.
Haji Niaz Mohammad, one of the elders at the gathering, said he hoped "God makes the Afghan government strong" so it can defeat the Taliban.
"They are the enemy of Muslims and the enemy of the children," he said, shaking his fists in anger.