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Iraq: caught in the cross-fire: each day, Iraqi teens face violence, fear, and uncertainty.


Murthatha Emad, 13, is a Shia Muslim. He lives along the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Last July, Murthatha was buying a hamburger from a neighborhood street vendor. Suddenly, an explosion tore through the area, killing more than 100 people.

The blast was so powerful that it threw Murthatha to the ground and knocked him unconscious. When he awoke in the hospital days later, he had no memory of the attack. Twenty-three pieces of shrapnel (metal fragments) were lodged in his body.

"My family feared I was killed because they found me buried under a dead body," Murthatha told JS.

Life has become increasingly difficult for children in Baghdad. Just getting to school can be life-threatening. Insurgents routinely attack areas protected by Iraqi and U.S. security forces. Rival militias fight each other for control of neighborhoods. Armed criminal gangs roam the streets seeking victims to kidnap for ransom. At any moment, anyone can get caught in the cross-fire.

Although he survived the attack, Murthatha is physically and psychologically scarred. "Now I'm afraid to leave my house," he said. "I don't want to return to school."

Among the Displaced

No one knows exactly how many Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war began. Estimates range from about 75,000 to more than 1 million. Today, most Iraqis believe that their government and security forces are incapable of protecting them. Many reluctantly say that the U.S. military must remain in the country to contain ongoing violence.

As the bloodshed continues, more and more Iraqis are being forced from their homes. Around 2.2 million people have been displaced within the country. Millions more are refugees abroad.

Haider Bashir Yaseen, 14, is a friend of Murthatha. Haider and his family recently abandoned their home in the Dora section of southern Baghdad. The neighborhood has been ravaged by fighting among U.S. forces, Shia militias, and insurgents. Haider's school was often closed because of the conflict.

Today Haider, a Shia Muslim, lives in his grandfather's house in central Baghdad. He says that the area is safer, but he must confront new challenges. "It has been difficult adjusting to my new school," he told JS. "I don't have as many friends now."

Last summer, insurgent attacks forced Marwan Kareem, a 15-year-old Shia, to flee with his family from the central Diyala province to Baghdad. Before that, Marwan witnessed the murder of a man outside his school. "I couldn't sleep for weeks after I saw the shooting," Marwan told JS. "I stopped going to school, and I was too afraid to leave my home."

Prisoners in Their Homes Life can be especially difficult for girls. In some areas, Muslim extremists prevent them from attending school and force them to wear traditional Islamic dress in public.

"Girls can't do anything here," said 13-year-old Nour Abbas Hassan, who is Shia. "We live like prisoners in our homes."

Mariam Farhad, 14, said that threats of violence have forced the closing of her all-girls school in Baghdad several times. A blast near the school last June disrupted final exams. "The explosion shattered the windows," Mariam said, "and knocked the papers off our desks."


Mariam, who is a Kurd, wants to work as an English teacher one day. But, she said, "it's difficult to make any future plans because we never know what will happen tomorrow."

Rand Ousai, a 15-year-old Sunni, said that she is not able to dress as she would like to outside her home. Instead, she must wear a headscarf and an abaya. "I would prefer to let my hair down and wear jeans and short-sleeved blouses," Rand told iS. "But I fear becoming a target of the insurgents or militias."

Stay or Leave?

Religious freedom has been stifled in Iraq, particularly for the Christian minority. (Fewer than 3 percent of Iraqis are Christian.) Sally Faris, 14, said that her family stopped attending Mass at their Chaldean Catholic church due to increasing attacks on Christians. Sally's family is hoping to join the 8,000 Iraqis who were granted asylum in Sweden last year.

Other countries are also taking in Iraqi refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 2 million people have left Iraq since the war began.

Mohammed Halam, a 14-year-old Shia, said that many of his friends have left for France, Jordan, Oman, or the United Arab Emirates. He corresponds with them via e-mail. However, with no Internet connection in his home, Mohammed must pay $2.75 per hour at a cyber cafe

Mohammed's family is now trying to decide whether to remain in Iraq. "We're torn between staying here amid the violence and leaving our home to start a new life in a new country," Mohammed said. "Either way, it's going to be very difficult."

Before Reading


The war began in March 2003, when U.S.-led troops attacked Iraq. President George W. Bush said that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein threatened the U.S. and other countries by possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Hussein was toppled within a month. Iraqis were able to write a new constitution and hold elections. But no WMD were found. Without the strong hand of the feared and often-hated Hussein, Iraq quickly dissolved into violence between rival groups. Neither the U.S. military nor the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, formed in 2006, has been able to bring stability to the country.


The Sunni (SOO-nee) and Shia (SHEE-ah) are the two major branches of Islam. The Sunni outnumber the Shia worldwide. But the Shia are the majority in Iraq and in neighboring Iran. The Sunni government of Saddam Hussein long persecuted the Shia, inflaming conflict between the sects (religious divisions).


Iraq is plagued by fighting among many sometimes-overlapping groups. Sunni and Shia militias battle each other and also U.S. troops, whom both see as foreign occupiers. The U.S. accuses neighboring Iran of supplying Shia militias with weapons. Insurgents allied with AI Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni terrorist organization, prey on American troops, Shia civilians, or anyone who works for the Iraqi government. Gangs of ordinary criminals also add to the bloodshed. With so many groups, it is often hard to tell who is responsible for any given attack.

Words to Know

* abaya: a loose, usually black, robe worn by Muslim women and girls. It covers the body from head to toe and is often worn with a head scarf and veil.

* insurgents: members of an irregular armed force opposing a civil authority or government.

* Kurd: a member of an ethnic group native to parts of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

* militia: a military force that is not part of a regular army.

* weapons of mass destruction (WMD): nuclear, chemical, and biological arms capable of damage and loss of life.



"I Have Nightmares" by Ibrahim Sadie Shokic, 15

After he was injured by a roadside bomb last year, Ibrahim Sadic Shokic, 15, had his right leg amputated above the knee. He recently told JS how his life has changed since then.

I missed school all of last year because my artificial leg wasn't ready. It's difficult for me to walk around. I used a pair of crutches my mother bought on the black market, but they're too short for me, and it hurts to use them. When I get my new leg, I hope to return to school.

Shrapnel is still lodged in my back and head. Sometimes I have nightmares about the explosions, and I wake up sweating and screaming. I rely on pills to help me sleep.

by James Palmer in Baghdad

* Objective

* Understanding how families are affected by the violence in Iraq through firsthand accounts.

* Word to Know

* asylum (n): a place of safety and protection; in this case, granted by a government to refugees from another country.

* Before Reading

This article includes accounts from Iraqi teens whose lives have been turned upside down by war.

Reading prompt: Would you leave your home if your town came under attack? What would you risk by staying or going?

* During Reading

Al Qaeda in Iraq is a loose collection of Sunni insurgent groups, first headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist. The group was not originally affiliated with Al Qaeda itself. In 2004, Zarqawi adopted the name, but his relations with Osama bin Laden were distant and strained. Zarqawi was killed in 2006.

* After Reading

* Comprehension: What are some ways in which Iraqi teens are affected by the war? (being forced from their homes; being wounded or killed; finding their schooling interrupted; having to hide inside their homes)

* Keep It Going

If any students would like to help Iraqi kids, several aid organizations exist, including the one in Resources at right. Help students organize their efforts, and see that what they do or plan to do meets the aid organization's needs and guidelines.



* Operation Iraqi Children. Includes photo gallery and video of Iraqi kids receiving gifts from U.S. schoolchildren.


* Iraq, Byron Augustin & Jake Kubena (Scholastic, 2006), political situation, geography, and culture. Grades 5-8.

* Iraq, Dale Lightfoot (Chelsea House, 2006). History and current politics. Grades 6 & up.


* Iraq in Fragments (DVD). Documentary; part 1 focuses on an 11-year-old auto mechanic in Baghdad. (Prescreen for classroom suitability.) See
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Title Annotation:World
Author:Palmer, James
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Date:Nov 12, 2007
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