Children's Deaths Tear Iraqi Neighborhood Asunder When a group of young boys were gunned down while playing soccer, a gun battle erupted in a Baghdad neighborhood where Sunnis and Shiites had lived in relative peace for years. A witness recounts the incident.

Children's Deaths Tear Iraqi Neighborhood Asunder

Children's Deaths Tear Iraqi Neighborhood Asunder

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On NPR reporter Saleem Amer's day off, he promised to take his wife to the market in Baghdad.

"She's been asking me every week, every Saturday to go to the market, and I kept telling her no, it's not a good day," Amer said. "It's bad today to go."

The security situation in his ethnically mixed neighborhood of el-Alam has been bad since the surge of American troops started. Armed groups, pushed out of other areas, have relocated there.

Still, this past Saturday, Saleem agreed to head out with his wife, leaving his newborn at home with relatives.

"When we've been heading to the market, we've been walking on the main street," he said. "There is a parking lot that the kids play (on) over there — they are not older than 14-year-old kids.

"Two vehicles came and parked close to the parking lot. Four or five men left the vehicle, and we hear the noise, the shooting of the machine gun, it was so close, so loud and it was continuous."

Saleem and his wife hid behind a tree, but they could see who the gunmen were targeting.

"I start looking and they are shooting on the kids," he said. "Eight of the kids fell already on the ground. The guys kept shooting — they just wanted to make sure that everybody is dead."

The boys were Sunni and Shiite. They had been playing soccer.

The houses around the empty lot are owned by families of both sects. They have known each other for years. Until then, sectarian tensions had been kept in check, but the savagery of this attack sent them over the edge.

"And that is when I saw something that I will never forget in my whole life — they just went crazy," Saleem said. "Fathers, brothers, they get quickly inside their houses, they take their weapons and they start shooting on their neighbors."

It turned into a sectarian free-for-all.

"Shia start shooting Sunni houses, Sunnis start shooting Shia houses. They let the real criminals run away," Saleem said. "The men in the houses they lost their mind totally."

The battle lasted for two hours. The bodies of the young boys lay in the field until everyone's ammunition was spent.

Finally, in the late afternoon, the remains were collected.

The man who picked them up told Saleem he was startled by how light their little corpses were.

Nine children were killed in the attack. Saleem knew many of them.

Trouble in the neighborhood seems far from over. More men with guns from both sects have arrived.

The Shiite militiamen on one street, Sunni insurgents on another, and angry families in the middle of it all.

There is nowhere to turn for help, Saleem believes.

"The problem is that we don't have a leader in the neighborhood," he said. "There is no government in my neighborhood, people are allowed to kill each other, without any problem. It's like we are living in a zoo — people turned to be animals ..."

Saleem is horrified at how his neighbors reacted, but he understands their rage, too.

"Truly I've been thinking about it," he said. "What if someone killed my son? I'm gonna kill more people if someone kill my son."

The attack on the children has done what its perpetrators intended.

As Saleem sees it, there is no doubt the hatred is growing. After what he saw in his neighborhood, he feels Iraq is ready to explode.

"People want a declared civil war. So it can settle everything," he said. "These reconciliation plans, or whatever, it's nothing."

NPR called the Ministry of Interior to get the official version of what happened in el-Alam. Their report was only that nine children were killed in random shooting, with no further details.