Children at war

ONE of the most tragic, and little-reported, side effects of the Iran-Iraq war is its toll on children. On one level, there are the indiscriminate casualties among children who are merely bystanders. For instance, an Iranian missile attack on Iraq earlier this month reportedly killed 29 children. Iraqi raids on Iran have killed Iranian children, too.

But on a much more sinister level there is the calculated use, at least by Iran, of children in combat.

There can be little doubt that Iran has used adolescents and children in human-wave attacks on heavily fortified Iraqi positions, and especially for mine clearing in advance of regular Iranian infantry attacks. Many children have fallen to Iraqi gunfire or been blown up by mines they have been sent in to clear.

Conservative estimates suggest that at least 50,000 Iranian children, mainly between the ages of 12 and 15, have been killed while being used as combat soldiers in the war.

Iraq claims that it is holding about 800 Iranian adolescents, aged 14 to 17, captured in battle. Some are said to have been held by Iraq for up to three years as prisoners of war. Iraqi officers claim that on occasion they have captured Iranian ``soldiers'' as young as eight years old.

All this is chronicled in a new report by the Center on War and the Child, a nonprofit, non-government Arkansas foundation monitoring child abuse in war.

While the use of Iranian children in combat has been criticized by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and by various other human rights organizations, the foundation urges greater exposure of these ``crimes against Iranian children.'' It wants more publicity, and more international pressure on Iran, in hopes it may lead to ``positive change.''

How does Iran recruit children as cannon fodder?

The foundation, citing a variety of accounts, says tactics vary. These include the use of sound trucks, rolling through Iranian villages, urging children to volunteer. Radio and television messages appeal to their patriotism and religious beliefs. Promises are made to parents that if their children are killed, they will receive more rations, money, and a line on their ration cards indicating that the family has a martyr.

While undergoing rudimentary training, according to one report, the children are brainwashed about the joys of the hereafter. Trained to die, they are given headbands with religious slogans and khaki jackets bearing the message that they have ``permission'' of the imam (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) to enter heaven, along with keys on chains around their necks ensuring such entry.

The boys are often given ``martyrs' syrup,'' believed to be sugar water, before embarking on what they are told is a holy crusade. Then they are sent off to the front, sometimes only with wooden sticks to detonate mines.

In its campaign against the use and abuse of children in war, the foundation says: ``Neither the children of Iran, nor those of Central America or Africa, have the least responsibility to take up the gun and lay down their lives in wars of their elders' making. Rather, we owe children the right to their childhood and protection from the physical and psychological violence of war. Our wars should not be made theirs, even for the sake of a `Holy Crusade.'''

Some reports suggest that in recent months Iran has been using fewer young children, and more older youths, on the battlefield. The Arkansas organization says this information should be treated with considerable caution. The Iran-Iraq war could continue for many more months, and with a shortage of manpower, Iran may place greater reliance on children in military offensives.

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