BAGHDAD — 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.
"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.
Here in Baghdad, the Al Jadreeya school sits 200 meters from the US headquarters, which is frequently targeted by mortars that shake the classroom windows.
Hassan, 15, says he used to be one of the Americans' biggest fans. He admired the soldiers' complicated gear and clean uniforms and their friendliness, and waved at them in the school. He often played soccer on the street with soldiers posted near his house.
But he says he has changed his mind slowly over the past 10 months, starting in March when, driving through Baghdad with his father, he saw a US tank crush the car of an Iraqi man. "He just wanted the soldiers to stop at the red light," Hassan says.
Another boy, Mustafa, also reflected the complex emotions. In class, he speaks angrily against the US soldiers. However, later, when asked if he had ever met any US soldiers, his face lights up. He talks in vivid detail of two "friends," a marine named "Animal" who had three teeth, and another US soldier named Thomas, from Chicago. "They were my friends. I followed them everywhere."
When asked why he changed his mind, he said he didn't know, finally adding, "The soldiers don't come to our school and play with us anymore."
At a nearby US military base for Alpha Company, 153rd infantry, 2nd Lt. Scott Tucker concedes that community relations efforts had waned. His unit replaced the 1st Armored Division, which had spent a lot of time and effort in the first six months after the war in school renovation. Tucker's unit arrived only three weeks ago, and the soldiers haven't had time to get to know the kids and visit the schools. "We'd love to get out there, and we're going to," he says, but it will be difficult if resistance fighters continue to attack them.
At the school, English teacher Hamid Abdul Kareem says he tries to defend the US military against the students' most common complaint: that the US military hurts innocent people.
"I tell them, 'You have to understand that they are young men, and they are also scared of terrorists.' " But Mr. Kareem is also divided between supporting the US military and the resistance movement. "A US convoy passed me the other day on the road. I pulled to the side, and the US soldier leaned down and cursed at me. Why do they do that? They are rude," he says angrily.
Kareem says he tells his students not to wave or greet American soldiers anymore. "What if someone from the resistance sees him waving at a US soldier? They may not like this and hurt the pupil."
Hence, defending the US soldiers publicly falls to 15-year-old Khldoon and a small band of other students, many of whom have parents connected with the US. Khldoon's unwavering support comes in part from the fact that his father works as a translator for the US military. Still, he wishes the soldiers would come back to his school and show the other boys that they are not the enemy.
"I say we gave Saddam 35 years. Why can't we give the Americans a little more time to show us what they can do?" Khldoon says, in the hallway.