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Psyches of Iraq’s Children Caught in the Cross-Fire

Times Staff Writer

Thirteen-year-old Mohammed Khalaf and his younger brother Ahmed had taken a break from their soccer game to collect candy from American soldiers when a suicide bomber turned his SUV onto the boys’ narrow street.

Tires screeching, the vehicle sped toward the children at the end of the block. In an instant, there was a massive explosion and 28 people were dead. Among them was Ahmed, whose body was ripped open in front of his older brother.

Mohammed hasn’t recovered since that terrible July morning, said his father, Ali Dalil Khalaf, putting a protective arm around the silent boy with large, searching brown eyes.

“What can I tell him?” Khalaf said as he sat with his family on the concrete floor of their small living room.

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Mohammed has become another young witness to the daily violence, and his father another adult burdened with loss and the task of explaining new horrors and hatreds to the children of Iraq.

Across the capital, parents, teachers and others now speak of protecting children not just from bombs, but from the war games youngsters play on the streets and the prejudices stoked by the mounting sectarian violence. Adults wish they could heal the psychological scars of growing up in a place where every passing car could be lethal.

“It’s a hard time to be a parent,” said Fawzi Haloob Sahi, who lives across the street from the Khalafs in the largely poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood known as Jadida. He lost his 17-year-old son in the bombing and has no money to treat his youngest boy, whose right hand was mangled in the attack.

Raising children in Baghdad hasn’t been easy for a long time. For a dozen years leading up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, families struggled to eke out a living as the country buckled under the weight of United Nations sanctions.

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Before that, hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis lost their lives in Saddam Hussein’s bloody war with Iran and his invasion of Kuwait.

But since the fall of Hussein 2 1/2 years ago, the bombings, the executions and the rising sectarian tensions have exacted a new toll, many Iraqis say.

“Children are not living their childhood,” said Suat Mohammed, a psychology professor.

“Children are growing afraid to interact with other children. They are afraid of relationships,” Mohammed said. “This generation, when it grows up, will create an unstable, weak society....[They] will curse us for what we have wrought in Iraq.”

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At Al Huda School in Karada, a mostly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, Principal Najiha Mahdi Mohammed Hadi said she was seeing things she had never seen in her 32 years at the secondary school for girls.

Hadi said students had begun talking about who was a Shiite and who was a Sunni. This year, there have been several fights between girls from different religious sects, she said.

“We never thought of distinctions before,” the 60-year-old principal said, shaking her head sadly in her sweltering first-floor office. “This idea just appeared.”

Outside, in a hallway where a group of girls was catching up on chemistry because it was too hot to study in the classrooms, teacher Suad Makiya vented her frustration at the persistent talk among Iraqis about the forces dividing them.

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“Why do they always talk of sectarian differences?” she said bitterly, insisting that there were no tensions among her students.

A few yards away, under the shade of an oleander bush, 17-year-old Nawras Salah said she and other Sunnis did not distinguish between religious sects. “But Shiites do,” Nawras said. “They talk about us not going to the Muslim holy sites and complain because Saddam was a Sunni.”

Hadi and other teachers at the dilapidated schoolhouse off one of Baghdad’s main boulevards say they have tried to quash the prejudices by stressing tolerance and unity. The school held several special assemblies to discuss the issue, Hadi said.

“Of course, it is something that breaks my heart,” the tired-looking principal said in between interruptions from cleaning ladies who complained that there was no water to mop the floors. “But what can I do? I just hope that it will go away with time.”

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Across town in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, a sprawling Shiite slum where mounds of garbage clog unpaved streets and sewage collects in foul-smelling ditches, Salima Juhaie’s family clings to similar hopes.

In August, Juhaie’s 15-year-old daughter was trampled to death in a stampede of thousands of Shiite pilgrims who had come to worship at the shrine of an 8th century imam. Juhaie and three of her other children barely escaped in the panic, sparked by rumors of an impending suicide attack.

Seated on a mat on her living room floor, Juhaie, cloaked in a black abaya, said she couldn’t explain why her daughter died. “It is our fate,” she whispered, her face puffy and red. “This is the Shiite way.”

Juhaie’s family and neighbors, gathered in the cramped home, said they were determined not to let the insurgents succeed in their effort to divide Iraqis.

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“This is the last card they have to play,” said Mohammed Hassan, 58, a Shiite Kurd who lives next door. He said that in the narrow alley where they live, adults were reminding children what unites Iraqis. “This crisis has only brought us closer together,” Hassan said.

Juhaie’s 10-year-old son, Mehdi, who was knocked unconscious in the stampede, can’t remember what happened. But he has become more withdrawn since the tragedy and is having trouble sleeping, his family said.

For the children at the little house in Jadida, home to 14 members of the Khalaf family, the world has become a darker, smaller place since Ahmed’s death.

On the living room wall, a photo of a smiling Ahmed in a soccer jersey has been tucked into the corner of a framed quotation from the prophet Muhammad. On the front gate, the family has hung a black banner proclaiming Ahmed a martyr, in the Shiite tradition. His brother Mohammed is not eating like he used to.

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The parents no longer allow the children to go to the store to buy bread. They saved money to buy video games so the children wouldn’t play soccer on the streets. They keep the children away from the markets where vendors sell toy guns and knives.

They don’t have to warn the children to avoid American soldiers. Whenever a convoy passes on the nearby highway, the children flee to a back bedroom.

But Khalaf and the others say they cannot shield their children from everything.

“When I see Americans, I show them what they are,” Khalaf said. “But what can I do when it comes to terrorists? How can I identify them? They look just like us.”

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Khalaf’s neighbor Sahi, who broke down in tears when he showed photos of his dead son, said he had told his youngest daughter that her brother was still in the hospital. But, he said, the little girl is beginning to suspect the truth.

“They are too young to understand,” Khalaf said of the children. “It will all come out when they are older.”

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Times staff writer Zainab Hussein contributed to this report.

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