A rights group criticized the U.S. military Wednesday for holding hundreds of youths in Iraq, saying American forces aren't living up to international standards.
The complaint by the New York-based Human Rights Watch came as U.S. officials prepared to answer questions Thursday from the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In written answers submitted to the committee last week, the Bush administration said the U.S. military is holding about 500 juveniles in detention centers in Iraq and has about 10 detained at a base in Afghanistan.
It said no minors were currently at the Guantanamo Bay prison, but as many as eight youths aged 13 to 17 had been held there in the past. That figure was challenged by rights groups and lawyers for some detainees, who contend dozens of juveniles had been sent to Guantanamo.
Washington told the committee that it has held a total of 2,500 youths under the age of 18 since 2002, almost all in Iraq.
Human Rights Watch said that children detained in Iraq are not being treated appropriately for their age.
Sandra Hodgkinson, deputy assistant secretary of defense, defended the practice of detaining minors in war zones.
"When we do encounter children who have been recruited into the armed forces to take up hostilities in a dangerous environment, we do believe that it is important to remove them from that battlefield environment," Hodgkinson said.
Juveniles in Iraq were detained after planting bombs, she said, adding that nothing prevents the U.S. from holding individuals under age 18.
The rights group also contended that U.S. forces are breaking their own rules on how long young people can be held.
Attending to their needs, U.S. says
Hodgkinson responded that the U.S. makes every effort to not hold a juvenile for more than a year. "We have developed ... a program that we believe attends to their special needs, and that more importantly the Iraqi government believes attends to their needs," she said.
In a separate complaint, the American Civil Liberties Union contended that U.S. military recruiters violate a global treaty on child rights because they target information military careers at children as young as 11.
Hodgkinson disputed that characterization. While thousands of American youngsters join cadet programs every year, formal recruitment does not occur until a person is at least 17, she said.
Less than a tenth of new recruits are 17 when they join the military and every effort is made to keep them away from combat operations until they have reached 18, she said.
"Where they choose to make that choice at the age of 17, we have a very robust program to make sure that the family is very well involved in that decision," Hodgkinson said.