Washington, 2 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The reports from Kirkuk are sketchy, but two accounts say a child wearing a belt with explosives carried out the attack near the car of Brigadier Khattab Iris Abdullah, the city's police commander.
Abdullah is reported to have been seriously wounded. The attacker -- in one report described as 13 years old -- was killed.
If these reports are accurate, it appears to be the first instance of so young a suicide bomber in the Iraq war, according to Jo Becker, the advocacy director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). "We know that as the war has progressed, there are more and more children who have become involved with the insurgent forces," she said. "I haven't heard of other suicide attacks by kids, but I can't be 100 percent certain."
But Becker said it is not unusual for children to be active combatants in wars. Children often fought against the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s. Children also were used as combatants in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Children have been recruited to fight in the recent African wars. And teenage suicide bombers have struck in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the African wars, Becker said, children sometimes have joined armies because they felt that was their only option in a country wracked by violence. Mostly, however, she told RFE/RL that they have been not so much recruited as kidnapped, threatened with death if they don't fight.
Becker said it's hard to generalize about what motivates children who say they're fighting of their own free will. Different conflicts, she said, lead to different reasons, and sometimes claims of free will are dubious.
But Becker said it is harder to challenge the stated self-determination of suicide bombers in the Israeli-Palestinian violence.
"As conflicts progress, children are more and more likely to get involved," she said. "We also know that when children perceive themselves and their communities to be the victims of abuse by another party, that can be a motivating force to join [with other combatants]. In certain circumstances -- like in the Palestinian territories, for example -- we have seen children who feel apparently so desperate that they're moved to become suicide bombers."
Becker said that in the past few years, HRW has found 10 cases of suicide bombers who were under the age of 18.
According to Becker, no matter how much a youth may want to join in combat, commanders should not allow the practice because, with teenagers, such decisions aren't fully and maturely thought out. And often, she said, the child-soldiers simply believe what they're told by their adult commanders. In some recent African wars, the young combatants are told to apply a lotion to their bodies that will make them invulnerable -- and they believed it.
"We [HRW] would say that children don't have the same decision-making capacity as adults. We know from recent science about the development of the adolescent brain that a lot of times adolescents are making decisions without any kind of long-term perspective on what the consequences are. Children are used as soldiers largely because they're easily manipulated, because they're gullible," Becker said.
Becker said HRW opposes the use of children as combatants because becoming a soldier is a decision of such enormity, and because of the apparently limited decision-making abilities of children.
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