Mahmoudiya, Iraq — Two boys approached a U.S. soldier, pulled out a pistol and handed it over. They got a smile and some candy in return.
The gun was plastic, and the boys were following a local Iraqi military order to surrender all toy weapons — an effort to prevent children from being mistaken for insurgents.
With more children on the streets now that violence is down, American soldiers have a new mission in this former “triangle of death” city south of Baghdad: clearing all toy guns from the bustling shopping area as they search for suspected insurgents and weapons caches.
The toy gun ban shows how jittery the U.S. and Iraqi forces still are in a country where the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform.
The U.S. warned early this year of a “disturbing trend” of al-Qaida in Iraq recruiting and teaching young boys to kidnap and kill. The military released several videos seized from suspected al-Qaida hideouts in Diyala province north of the capital showing militants training children who appeared as young as 10.
Teenagers have also carried out actual attacks. On Dec. 1, a teenage suicide bomber followed by a parked car bomb struck police recruits in Baghdad, killing 16 people. On Jan. 20, a teenager carrying a box of candy blew himself up at a gathering of tribal members near Fallujah, killing six people.
From a distance, a soldier can’t tell whether the weapon is real and has to make a fast decision that could cost someone his or her life.
Soldiers in the Mahmoudiya area recently became alarmed when they saw a boy pointing a gun that looked very realistic. They went on alert and held the child until it was determined that the gun was a toy.
“This is one of the biggest issues that we’re encountering right now,” said Lt. Cameron Mays, 24, of Marion, Ky. “Right now it’s a gray area. You’re talking about a prime situation where a U.S. soldier has a split-second to make a decision about whether there’s a danger.”
The order to ban toy guns in Mahmoudiya and surrounding areas was handed down by Staff Maj. Gen. Ali Jassim al-Freiji, the commander of the Iraqi army’s 17th Division, which oversees the region.
1st Lt. Tray Marsh, who took the plastic pistol, congratulated the boys for doing the right thing as he and other U.S. soldiers began a joint foot patrol with their Iraqi counterparts through the city’s main market area on Wednesday. The gun was black and had a red cap.
Members of Delta Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, based in Fort Riley, Kan., have collected some 15 plastic weapons in the past two weeks, piling them up on filing cabinets and hanging some on the walls in their office at the U.S. base at Mahmoudiya.