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Iraqi school boys: Now we hate the US

By Christina AsquithCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 2004


When it comes to defending the US military, 15-year- old Khldoon Abdullah Mahmood is a lone voice in the boisterous hallways of his Al Jadreeya Intermediate School.

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"I love the Americans," he shouts. "They have tanks, Chinook, Black Hawk. They fight for us, for the true Iraq."

Behind him comes a chorus of boos.

"I used to love the Americans, but I changed my mind after Fallujah," says Hassan, a pudgy, bespectacled 15-year-old, adding with uncertainty, "Give me a weapon and I will fight America."

Another boy has a different idea: "Let's beat up Khldoon."

Not so long ago, school boys across Baghdad chased US tanks, flocked around soldiers, and practiced their "thumbs up." These days, they are deeply divided about the US military, and in many cases have turned against their former heroes.

"These children loved the USA soldiers," says the school headmaster, Abbas Fadel al Hakim. "But they've seen things in the streets like the American soldiers stepping on people's heads in the streets. This has changed their attitudes."

In Iraq, adolescent boys on the brink of manhood must choose between real enemies: the US soldier or the Iraqi resistance fighter. It is a debate that forces boys to wrestle with adult questions of national identity, heroism, and definitions of manhood that they are not mature enough to understand, experts say.

"At this age, a boy is trying to find himself," says Dr. Ali Aoda, a child psychologist at the University of Mustansiriyah in Baghdad. "He wants to be a man, but the family still treats him like a boy. So he is extremely susceptible to outside influences."

At Khldoon's school, the winning influence lately seems to be the Iraqi resistance fighter. A random poll of one classroom of boys showed that 28 boys said the resistance fighters were their heroes, while only four boys sided with the US soldiers. They all conceded that one year earlier, all 32 would have voted for the US soldiers.

Salan, 15, says, "When the soldiers came we thought they were our good friends. They played with us. But now the Americans shoot the Iraqis. They have changed."

Some of the enmity toward the Americans may be a residual legacy of Saddam Hussein's teachings. In Hussein's days, primary and secondary school textbooks championed the embattled Iraqi soldier, portraying him as relying on courage and inner strength to defeat the more powerful forces of Zionism and Western imperialism.

The David-versus Goliath relationship is now being mirrored by the Iraqi resistance fighter taking on the US military. "In the resistance figure, a boy sees manhood in an older Iraqi fighting against a big power," says Dr. Aoda.

The trauma of living in a war zone could also contribute to boys' sense of disempowerment and need to join a group perceived as strong and able to protect them, such as the resistance movement.

In fact, in recent weeks, dozens of children have been killed by both sides. In Basra, a bomb planted in an Iraqi police station killed 12 students on their way to school. In Fallujah, a dozen children under 15 were caught in the cross fire when US forces attacked, the Iraqi health minister reported.