Amid Iraq unrest, a force of children takes over security

BAGHDAD, Iraq - On the street corner 50 yards from a group of U.S. soldiers, a giggling 10-year-old boy clutched an AK-47 assault rifle, which was fully loaded and ready to fire.

The rifle, once the property of the U.S. military, would not be fired in the direction of the soldiers on this night, but soon would be. Muhammad al-Jurany got the weapon from a member of the new Iraqi security apparatus, the Facilities Protection Service, a force of 14,500 armed guards who are to protect hotels, government buildings and oil pipelines, among other fixtures.

The man who handed the rifle to him to play with, Haider Kadhim, who claimed to be 20, stood at his post along the Tigris River, unarmed, dressed in baggy jeans and sneakers, dancing to music blaring through his headset.

As the U.S. military works to quell unrest in Iraq, it is relying on help from people like Kadhim, young men and women rushed into security service with little training and no real uniforms but armed with the powerful weapons that are now a fixture in this country.

"We've retrained them twice and they seem to get it, then you let them alone for five minutes and it's like they've never talked to us," said a soldier of the 4th Infantry Division who asked that his name not be used because his unit has been forbidden to speak with reporters. "Some of them are OK, but a lot of them are like little kids."

In this case, al-Jurany was merely holding the weapon, not firing it, and if the young security officer who gave it to him had any thought that he was doing wrong, he did not show it. He offered to pose for a photograph with the boy.

Included in President Bush's $20.3 billion request to Congress to begin work to rebuild Iraq is $67 million for this protection service. Aside from salaries - most of the officers make $5 per shift - the money includes $2.6 million for 80 pickup trucks and $15 million for training.

Increasingly, in Baghdad and beyond, young men and women stand guard, frisking people entering and exiting restricted areas and checking cars for bombs. This frees coalition troops who had been performing such tasks to perform other work and puts more responsibility on Iraqis to police their country.

Some of the guards wear gray shirts, their official "uniform," but they can be difficult to distinguish from anybody else with a weapon, which is a fair number of people. In a country where robberies and carjackings seem as common as the sound of gunfire, not everyone trusts the security officers.

"The soldiers trained us good," Kadhim said as the boy held his gun. "If someone tries to kill me, I can shoot them. If someone drives by without stopping, I can shoot them."

That is precisely what happened one recent afternoon. At a checkpoint on the Tigris, two men in a car sped past guards, who opened fire down a street packed with pedestrians and toward a corner where American soldiers were gathered. Pedestrians dived to the ground and soldiers ducked behind a tank while a couple of dozen shots were fired, none hitting the speeding car. Nobody was hit by the bullets, and the car, which turned out to be stolen, was finally stopped around the corner by U.S. troops.

"That should not happen, because the guards are trained how to use the weapons, when to use the weapons and when not to," said Naheed Mehta, a spokeswoman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. "Understand that we're just getting these groups up and running and they're not going to be perfect from the beginning."

To be sure, not all of the officers are as seemingly distracted as Kadhim, who said he worked in a shoe factory before the war and is now homeless, spending a night with a friend, the next with another. His mother fled the country in 1991, he said, and his father was killed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Wejdy Adeeb, a 19-year-old who said his parents were killed by Hussein's men, reports to work at 8 p.m. - seven days a week - and works until 7 a.m. to earn his $5 per shift. He has never fired his rifle, he said, but he did find a handgun in a car he was searching and called for U.S. troops to arrest the man.

He lets no one pass his post without frisking them and checks each car under the hood and chassis. He would not accept a soda during an interview, saying he has been trained not to take bribes.

"I need the money and the country needs security, so it is a good job for me," Adeeb said. "People in Iraq are crazy. They kill for no reason."

The Coalition Provisional Authority said it could not provide information on how prospective guards are screened to determine whether they were criminals released from prison before the war by Hussein or had been ranking Baath Party members. Nehta said they were asked both questions on an application form, but she did not know if subsequent checks were made.

Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division said they had trained some of the guards, spending about five hours a night with them for seven days.

Falih Meklif, who for 14 years was a member of the Iraqi army, said he decided to join the protection force because he would not be given his former rank of captain if he rejoined the military. He fought U.S. and British soldiers during the war, and when he finally determined that it was a lost cause, he changed into civilian clothes, made his way to Baghdad and eventually was hired to work alongside the army he'd been fighting against.

"So now I am a guard, doing the job of a child," he said as he stood outside a hospital in Baghdad, his new post. "I can keep this hospital safe, but I am a waste here. I could do more."

This is not the security group on which most attention is focused. Bush's budget proposal includes $2.1 billion for Iraqi national security, the bulk of it to build an army that administration officials hope will number 40,000 troops by August. Another $2.1 billion is requested for police and fire service and border enforcement. But the security force represents the organization with which most Iraqis have face-to-face contact, and its success would ease strains on coalition troops and the country's new police force.

By the Tigris, when Kadhim decided he wanted his rifle back, he told the 10-year-old to hand it over.

"Come and get it," said the boy, pointing it at the security guard. But then he relented, straining to lift the weapon high enough to get the shoulder strap over his head.