Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ali Hamza, 14, has been a militiaman with the Shia Mahdi Army, commanded by the Shia preacher Moqtada al-Sadr.
Hamza is one of the hundreds of youths and children who have been helping the militia fight the US army, by attacking passing US convoys with stones and rocks. When they get older they sometimes progress to using guns in the attacks.
"My family is very proud of me. Every day I return home telling them what I have done and they kiss me saying that God has reserved a place beside Him for me," Hamza said.
"My father is one of the most important fighters of the militia and he has instructed me in detail on how to be a good soldier in the name of God. One day, I will carry my gun and kill every American who walks over our land," he added.
In the morning Hamza goes out onto the streets of Sadr City, one of the poorest and most crowded Shia suburbs of the capital. There, he helps his friends who work as traffic controllers as insecurity has discouraged traffic police from operating in the area.
"My father said that it was better for me to help the militia than to go to school because I will not learn Muslim duties there," Hamza said.
Returning home in the afternoon, Hamza is taught how to fight by this father. Out in the slums, they practice throwing rocks at US convoys.
"I'm proud of my son. He is fighting for our country's freedom. That is a better education for him," Abu Ali, Hamza's father, said.
One day, I will carry my gun and kill every American who walks over our land.
The first training session takes about four months and after that the children or youth go out onto the streets alone or in gangs to attack US soldiers or convoys. However, their training does not stop there. They continue to practice about four times a week, depending on their availability, Abu Ali said. Many of them work to bring money home to the family.
Abu Ali's views are no different from those of the other families who encourage their children to fight as a way of showing their courage and strength as Muslims.
NGOs working in Iraq have confirmed that al-Sadr's militia has been encouraging children and youths to fight the US army or by acting as spies for the militia. Any Shia youth can participate in the attacks by Mahdi´s Army as long as their family agrees.
Al-Sadr's office refused to speak to IRIN about the issue. It only said: "Whatever the [youth's] age is, the important thing is that they have decided on their own to fight the occupiers."
Security groups and NGO's reaction
Maj. Michael Trazio, operations officer for the US's 1st Battalion, told IRIN that the attacks made no sense; that the local population should know that they [the US forces] were there to help maintain security in the area and not to fight the population.
"Letting boys attack US convoys is dangerous and they can get hurt. The local police are afraid to stop them, and it can be dangerous because they are in the middle of a battle camp and should be protected rather than used as fighters," Trazio said.
"Sometimes you can see as many as 50 children together attacking a convoy with rocks," said Lt-Col. Hayder Saeed, one of the Iraqi officers responsible for supervising the area and following US convoys.
It is absolutely unacceptable that parents should let their children work as militants when they should be in schools learning.
"It is absolutely unacceptable that parents should let their children work as militants when they should be in schools learning," Saeed added.
The United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) said that to let children work as militants or insurgents was against international laws that guarantee children's safety and respect for their rights.
Local NGOs said in late November that hundreds of children and youths have left their schools to serve as insurgents or militia helpers, and many have been killed as a result of their inexperience.
Lack of wisdom and results
Dr. Muhammad Jabbry, a political scientist at Baghdad University, said that there had been a huge increase in the number of children and youth in insurgent and militia groups. What was more shocking, he added, was that that they joined the groups with the blessing, if not active help, of their families.
"There is a mixture of ideologies in Iraq today. The sectarian violence has adopted different forms to win, and the one prevalent these days is to send children to the frontline of the fighting. Families prefer having their children killed while fighting US forces," Jabbry said. "This is the new reality of Iraq and one which will be with us for many years to come."
However, specialists have said that the problem could get more serious in the coming years as the impact of violence was having a damaging effect on the minds of millions of children countrywide.
"Most of my youth patients are suffering serious mental impact from the violence in the country," said Dr. Ibraheem Jaboury, a psychiatrist and vice-president of the Mental Studies Centre in the capital, Baghdad.
"We have had cases of children who lost their voices because of the violence, and others have been brainwashed my militants or insurgents to become fighters, and it is quite impossible to change their minds," Jaboury said.
"Unfortunately, if this situation continues for long, in the future we will have adults with violent minds who could turn into criminals, rapists or killers," he added.
Last month, IRIN spoke with children between the ages of seven and 12 who were collaborating with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, mostly in Anbar province. Some were even being trained by the same groups to become suicide bombers.
In addition to Iraqi youths who have been fighting with such groups, there are also those who have been helping criminal gangs in kidnappings, robberies or even contract killings.
"My family needs money and we cannot find a job anywhere, so I decided to help a gang specialised in kidnapping. For each kidnap I get US $100 and it is enough to help my family with food for the whole month," Khalid, 13, (not his real name) said.
The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs said that it was taking care of at least 200 children who had been arrested for participating in kidnappings or robberies. Treatment includes psychological and occupational work therapies as well as schooling. Some have been taken to government shelters or orphanages, but the number of children involved in such criminal acts could be as high as a thousand.
Children and youth are seriously denied human rights in Iraq. Hundreds of children are being brainwashed and used as fighters with insurgents and militias.
"This is what the war has brought to Iraq, children becoming criminals to support their families, and many die or are killed by gangs because they refuse to continue doing the job," said Muna Kudeifa, press officer at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
"Their destiny should change but for that we need a country which is free of violence. To us that is still a dream," she added.
Saleh Muhammad, a spokesman for the Baghdad-based Children Saving Association (CSA), said that, "Children and youth are seriously denied human rights in Iraq. Hundreds of children are being brainwashed and used as fighters with insurgents and militias.
"Those children are being denied education, good healthcare and are being exposed to the most dangerous situations between bullets and explosions. The international community should intervene urgently before more children die or are injured."
According to Muhammad, the CSA has received at least 20 reports from different districts in the capital and from Anbar province saying that children were used as fighters, and most of them with the support of their families, with the exception of orphans.
"The orphans are the most psychologically affected. Insurgents and militias use their pain [of being orphans] to brainwash them and put them on the frontline," he said.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]