(Sabah Arar ~ Associated Press)
BAGHDAD -- Boys in soccer jerseys don black masks and grab weapons. They scramble over mud-brick walls, blast down doors and hold guns to the heads of residents inside.
The U.S. military said videos seized from suspected al-Qaida in Iraq hideouts show militants training children who appear as young as 10 to kidnap and kill. It's viewed as a sign that the terror network -- hungry for recruits -- may be using younger Iraqis in propaganda to lure a new crop of fighters.
"Al-Qaida in Iraq wants to poison the next generation of Iraqis," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman. "It is offering children as the new generation of mujahedeen," he added, using the Arabic term for holy warriors.
The video, shown to reporters Wednesday, depicted an apparent training session with black-masked boys -- ammunition belts draped across their chests -- forcing a man off his bicycle at gunpoint and marching him off down a muddy lane. An off-camera voice, speaking with an Iraqi accent, instructs children how to take firing positions with assault rifles.
At one point, the boys huddle in a circle on a cement floor, solemnly pledging allegiance to al-Qaida.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said they could offer no estimate of how many children have joined the insurgency.
Children are rarely behind insurgent attacks in Iraq, though they have been used as decoys. In March, police said children were used in a car bombing in which the driver gained permission to park in a busy shopping area after pointing out that he was leaving his children in the back seat. The children were killed along with three Iraqi bystanders.
The military said the videos -- seized in a December raid in Khan Bani Saad northeast of Baghdad -- were filmed in Iraq and depicted Iraqi children, but offered no definitive evidence. Smith said the adult trainer's voice had an Iraqi accent. It could not be determined when the videos were made, he added.
The scenes included boys mimicking the violence and aggression that have become familiar to Iraqi children since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But the footage also appeared to show organized militant training sessions, suggesting an effort by al-Qaida-inspired insurgents to train ever-younger militants.
The raw footage was likely to be incorporated into propaganda films for al-Qaida or other militant groups.
"We believe this video is used as propaganda to send out to recruit other boys ... and to send a broader message across Iraq to indoctrinate youth into al-Qaida," Smith said.
American soldiers frequently discover propaganda-style materials among the weapons and ammunition they confiscate daily in raids across Iraq.
In a Dec. 8 operation in Muqdadiyah, north of the Iraqi capital, U.S. troops found an Arabic movie script with scenes of terrorists training children, and children interrogating and executing victims, Smith said.
Both the videos and film script were found in Diyala province, a hotbed of Sunni militant activity.
Smith said the military decided to show the videos of children to expose al-Qaida's "morally broken ideology" and encourage Iraqi opposition. An estimated 80,000 Sunni tribesmen have already crossed lines to join the Americans in ousting militants from their hometowns.
Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called al-Qaida in Iraq "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements" after twin market bombings carried out by women described by Iraqi authorities as mentally disabled. The U.S. military later backed the Iraqi account of the bombings, which killed nearly 100 people.
"Iraq's democratic and elected government is building schools ... and offers the children of Iraq hope for a peaceful and prosperous future. Al-Qaida in Iraq sends 15-year-old boys and mentally handicapped women on suicide missions, builds car bombs and is trying to teach children how to kill," Smith said.
In one scene, young trainees -- toting guns as long as the children are tall -- pile out of a van in military-style formation. They surround a car and force out the mock driver. One hauls along a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Another clip shows a young boy wearing a suicide vest and posing with automatic weapons.
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said he believed insurgents were kidnapping an increasing number of Iraqi children, though he could not offer details or figures.
"This is not only to recruit them, but also to demand ransom to fund the operations of al-Qaida," al-Askari said. He aired another grainy video clip which he said showed Iraqi security forces rescuing an 11-year-old boy who had been kidnapped by al-Qaida.
The short clip was mostly dark, and showed a boy blinking in the beam of a flashlight. Al-Qaida had demanded a $100,000 ransom for his release, but an informant's tip led to his rescue, al-Askari said.