Camps for 'Saddam's Cubs' offer gun and political training for

Monday, August 12, 2002

BAGHDAD, Iraq, -- Thousands of boys in Iraq have swapped soccer practice and tennis lessons for light-weapons training and religion lessons as they prepare to defend Iraq, they say, from "our enemies."

Firing pistols and AK-47s while studying Islam and history, 1,800 boys aged between 13 and 16 are getting three weeks of training at "Saddam's Cubs Training Camp" in a southern Baghdad suburb, one of about 30 such camps scattered across the country.

"We are sharp swords in the hand of President Saddam Hussein to be used to fight our enemies," 14-year-old Mustafa Amir told The Associated Press on Sunday.

"I am looking forward to finishing the course as soon as possible to be able to defend the country when it is attacked," Amir said, clad in khaki-colored fatigues, as he cleaned his AK-47.

Light-weapons training

Amir and his fellow trainees rise early each morning for days filled with physical exercises, light-weapons training and religious and political classes.

The training comes amid speculation that the United States is weighing options to wage war on Iraq. Washington accuses Saddam of producing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraqi government established "Saddam's Cubs" camps throughout the sanctions-strapped country in 1996, five years after the country was driven out of neighboring Kuwait by a U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq following the war. The sanctions can only be lifted once weapons inspectors verify that Iraq's non-conventional weapons program has been dismantled.

Another young trainee, 15-year-old Sinan Abid Salman, said he had been worried about going to the camp, but soon got used to its regime.

"I was scared in the beginning but when I was acquainted with the people and the weapons the days started to pass fast," Sinan said.

"It is a pleasure to be trained to say that I am able to defend my family and country."

Amir, meanwhile, said he liked the camp from day one, and had joined to learn "to be able to fight like a man."

"Most summers I go to clubs to play sports like tennis and soccer, but I am having as much fun in the camp as I do at the clubs," he said.

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