Near a swamp of sewage in a slum in eastern Iraq, six-year-old Amir plays soccer with friends, unaware of a fact that may continue to affect him for the rest of his life:
His father - killed four months before he was born - was a senior leader within al-Qaeda.
Like dozens of other children of insurgents in Diyala Province, Amir’s birth was not registered. He has no documentation, no citizenship, no access to government services and, his mother fears, no future.
Diyala was one of Iraq’s most dangerous areas during the civil conflict of 2006-7, one of the many provinces north and west of Baghdad that fell under al-Qaeda’s control.
During that period, some families gave their daughters up for marriage because the militants forced them to do so; others considered it a sign of gratitude to foreign fighters seen to be defending Iraqi lands from occupation. Those marriages were never registered in court, but rather under Islamic law, requiring only a mosque imam and two witnesses. (Iraqi law requires birth registration to be supported by a marriage certificate.)
According to civil society activists and members of parliament, more than seventy children fall into this limbo in Diyala, one of the most affected provinces. No national statistics exist.
Like a curse
Amir’s mother, 28, wears black as a symbol of sadness. She says her family forced her to marry a Syrian jihadi fighting what he used to call occupation forces: “It was not up to me to choose my husband.”
He controlled a cell of more than 10 people before he was killed in clashes with the US army in 2006. He was a considered a “prince” in al-Qaeda terms, having killed more than 10 people.
Amir and his mother have moved locations many times in an attempt to avoid revenge attacks by the families of his father’s victims. They now live in a small house with one room and a kitchen, made of mud, tin and palm stalks.
"He is like a curse that came into my life,” Amir’s mother told IRIN. “The pain still lives with me even after his death. I have to suffer raising Amir who doesn’t even exist in the real world, without identification."
Legalizing the sons of al-Qaeda?
Some members of parliament are trying to change that - pushing for a law that would give the children of insurgents a legitimate presence as Iraqi citizens.
"They are victims of al-Qaeda,” said Hassan Sulaiman a member of Iraqiya, Iraq’s largest Sunni-backed political bloc, in Diyala.
He said many women were forced into these marriages; others were left behind as their husbands were killed or fled.
“We are trying to solve this problem,” he told IRIN. “[These children] will be considered a threat in the future.”
He said lawmakers would continue pursuing the issue in parliament until “we reach some kind of solution for them”, and suggested orphanages as one option.
Shiites, the dominant sect in parliament, have rejected the idea of citizenship, arguing al-Qaeda - a Sunni group - committed many crimes and killed many innocent Iraqis.
"We can’t let it happen,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a leader of the Shiite Sadrist movement and a member of the security committee in parliament. “Al-Qaeda has the blood of Iraqis [on its hands]. We can give them nothing."
|They will be a nucleus for al-Qaeda, not because they want that but because society and government have given up on them. They are giving them no other choice– civil society activist Alia Talib|
Al-Qaeda itself recognizes the problem, according to an al-Qaeda fighter, who gave only his nickname, Abu Yousif, for security reasons.
A few months ago, he said, al-Qaeda issued a fatwa ordering members not yet wanted by the government to marry wives of fallen or imprisoned fighters and support their children financially.
“It is important to keep the families safe and raise their sons as we will need them in the future,” he told IRIN. “We must raise our generations [well] so that our message to the world continues. Our war against the infidels has just begun and our powers are increasing.”
Life of destitution
Despite this kind of rhetoric, some segments of society still see these children as the product of what has come to be known as “non-violent rape”, destined for a life of destitution.
“A number of those widows have become prostitutes, as they want to earn money,” said Haneen al-Salihy, a civil activist in Diyala. “Society is rejecting them… Even if the courts start to register them and they get identification, things will not change for them. People gave up on them and their families are ashamed of them even if they were the reason for these bad marriages [in the first place].”
This has left children reaching school-age on the street instead of in class, without health care or future employment prospects.
Alia Talib, a researcher and a civil society activist who heads Nargis magazine, says this kind of lifestyle will sow the seeds of future problems in Iraq.
“We will have an illiterate generation… Keeping them this way is a great threat for the future of the society, as they can become criminals, terrorists, drug dealers and killers.
“They will be a nucleus for al-Qaeda,” she went on, “not because they want that but because society and government have given up on them. They are giving them no other choice.”
Talib said she received promises from the Ministry of Education that the issue would be discussed in parliament, but so far, she said, the deliberations have led to nothing, “and I don’t think that they will do anything.”
In the meantime, these children continue to live secret lives.
Seven-year-old Zaineb collects plastic bottles from a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Diyala’s capital Baquba. Her father, a Saudi al-Qaeda leader, was killed during clashes with the US army in 2005.
Her mother was able to get fake identification for her but she is too afraid of being caught to use it. Zaineb does not know her father’s identity or fate; she believes he is travelling and never asks about him.
“All I saw in my life was guns and war,” her mother, 30, told IRIN. “I don’t have hope in anything. Being dead is much better for me but I can’t leave Zaineb alone.”