Teenagers armed with grenades and suicide vests are the latest recruits for Sunni insurgents trying to find new ways to outwit heightened security measures and attack American and Iraqi forces, the U.S. military said Saturday.
The use of boys also serves a propaganda purpose — the soldiers face criticism for harming children if they fire back.
Insurgents first turned to women to carry out suicide bombings, causing U.S. and Iraqi troops to step up recruiting and training of female searchers at checkpoints to seek explosives easily hidden under women's billowing black robes.
Now they appear to be using youths and weapons that are easier to hide like grenades as they face omnipresent checkpoints and convoys aimed at bolstering security gains that have caused the level of violence to plummet nationwide.
"With grenade attacks, insurgents hope to capitalize on reports of civilian injuries blamed on a coalition response to the attack," said Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq. "However, the reality is that the grenade explosion itself causes the majority of civilian casualties."
The military has said in the past it believes al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups are recruiting children because of their ability to avoid scrutiny.
But a statement issued Saturday was the first to provide detailed allegations of teenage suspects in what the military called "a growing trend of children carrying out attacks on Iraqi security and U.S. forces."
Cheng stressed roadside bombs are still the main mode of attack against U.S. forces but said grenades are often the weapon of choice in urban areas where it is harder to plant explosives without being seen.
Young men can quickly throw the grenades then fade into the crowd, depriving the soldiers of the chance to fight back amid fears that they'll hit innocent civilians. The tactic has been used in fighting before but takes on added significance as the Americans have been trying to improve relations with the Iraqi public in a bid to stem support for the insurgency.
Army Col. Gary Volesky, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq's Ninevah province, said grenade attacks are on the rise but a "more disturbing trend" was the recruiting of children to throw them.
Grenade and suicide attacks
On May 9, U.S. soldiers killed a 12-year-old boy who the military said was believed to be involved in a grenade attack in the northern city of Mosul. Local residents said he was an innocent civilian. But the military said the boy was found with 10,000 dinars, or about $9, in his hand, which they said suggested he had been paid by insurgents.
At least five other youths between the ages of 14 and 19 have been involved in grenade and suicide attacks in recent weeks in northern Iraq, it said.
Those included a 15-year-old boy who was captured Monday after lobbing a grenade at a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol in Hawijah, west of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.
Another teenage boy threw a grenade at a U.S.-Iraqi patrol in the same area on Thursday, then fled the scene when it failed to detonate, the military said.
Nobody was harmed in those attacks. Two U.S. soldiers were killed in separate grenade attacks elsewhere in the area on Thursday, although it was not known who was responsible for the incidents.
A boy between the ages of 14 and 16 threw a grenade at a joint convoy of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police in Hawijah on May 26, but no injuries or damage were reported, according to the statement.
The military also said a boy as young as 14 was the driver in a suicide car bombing that killed five Iraqi policemen in Kirkuk on May 12, while a 19-year-old man was arrested while trying to detonate a suicide vest at a Shiite mosque in the city on May 1, the statement said.
Four alleged members of a group known to recruit children were arrested on April 14, the military said.
Insurgent groups are trying to take advantage of the fact "that children do not draw as much attention and soldiers do not want to harm them," the U.S. said in the statement.
The United Nations also has expressed concern that rising numbers of Iraqi youths have been recruited into militias and insurgent groups.
The U.S. military released several videos last year seized from suspected al-Qaida in Iraq hideouts that showed militants training children who appeared as young as 10 to kidnap and kill. Children have also been used as decoys in Iraq.
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