Iraqi security forces have strong evidence that al-Qaeda is attempting to recruit children and adolescents into a new cell known as "Ashbal al-Qaeda", Iraqi officials said.
Udai al-Khadran, mayor of al-Khalis district in Diyala province, told Mawtani about relentless attempts by al-Qaeda to form a cell to replace the "Birds of Paradise" group, which was disbanded by Iraqi security forces last year.
Iraqi Interior Ministry undersecretary Adnan al-Assadi said al-Qaeda's plan to establish this cell is "on the verge of collapse".
"The counter terrorism service, in collaboration with local police in al-Tahrir area, east of Baqubah, arrested three al-Qaeda gunmen last Friday (April 26th) who were involved in recruiting children," he said.
Security forces are trying to locate the rest of the group, and are identifying the children al-Qaeda was able to "recruit, delude and brainwash", al-Assadi said.
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan said security forces obtained information on the new cell from "confessions given by gunmen who had been detained in Diyala and areas to the east of Baghdad".
Maan told Mawtani the recruitment targeted "children whose ages ranged between 11 and 16, most of whom come from families facing difficult financial difficulties, or are children of former al-Qaeda members who were killed or captured by Iraqi security forces".
The prospective cell was established to "carry out terrorist strikes by having children carry explosive charges on bicycles or motorbikes, or by having them haul mid-sized bags and placing them at specific locations or delivering them to other persons, counting on security forces' lenient treatment of children and the ease with which those children can cross checkpoints", he said.
Maan also said al-Qaeda was planning to use the children as suicide bombers by dressing them up with explosives, which are triggered by remote control.
EARLY DETECTION IS ESSENTIAL TO SAFEGUARDING CHILDREN
Director of the Interior Ministry's Community Police, Col. Mushtaq Taleb, said the police would deal with any information provided seriously, confidentially and swiftly.
A telephone hotline linked to the National Intelligence Agency has been designated for this purpose, 077006666673, he said.
"The plan [to recruit children] is not unheard of within terrorist groups, which have in the past used children, the mentally impaired and even animals," deputy chairman of the Iraqi parliament's women and children committee Liqaa al-Wardi told Mawtani.
"But this time, citizens and security forces would not allow this cell to be formed and its detection came about rather early, which means [the terrorists'] chances for success are seriously diminishing," he said.
'A FLAGRANT VIOLATION OF CHILDREN'S RIGHTS'
Human rights activist Haifa al-Ali said recruiting children represents "a flagrant violation of children's rights". "[This] would place children under the suspecting eyes of security forces, who would then find themselves forced to search them," she said.
Al-Ali called on families to safeguard their children, especially adolescents, and to be careful who they befriend. "Al-Qaeda has left nothing in the country without trying to stain it with terrorism or distort its image," said local resident Jamal Naji, 45.
This latest menace by al-Qaeda "makes us believe in the necessity of co-operating with security forces, as well as with each other, to fight and prevent al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from carrying out their ill desires and penchant for killing and bloodshed", he said.
By Mohammad al-Qaisi