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.
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Children's Deaths Tear Iraqi Neighborhood Asunder

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Children's Deaths Tear Iraqi Neighborhood Asunder

Children's Deaths Tear Iraqi Neighborhood Asunder

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro tells the story. But please be prepared. This report details troubling scenes of violence against children.

LOURDES GARCIA: It was NPR reporter Saleem Amer's day off. He had promised to take his wife to the market.

SALEEM AMER: She's been asking me every week, every Saturday to go to the market. And I kept telling, no. it's not a good day, you know. It's bad today to go.

GARCIA: The security situation in his ethnically mixed southern Baghdad neighborhood of Al Alam has been bad since the so-called surge started. Armed groups that had been 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.

AMER: When we've been heading to the market, we've been walking on the main street. There is a parking lot that the kids play over there. They are not older than 14 years old. Two vehicles came and parked close to the parking lot. Four, five men left the vehicle, and we hear the shooting of the machine gun. It was so close, so loud, and it was continuous.

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

AMER: I start looking; they are shooting on the kids. Eight of the kids fell already on the ground and the guys kept shooting. They just wanted to make sure that everybody's dead.

GARCIA: The children, all boys, were Sunni and Shiite. They'd been playing soccer. The houses around the empty lot are owned by families of both sects that have known each other for years. Until now, sectarian tensions have been kept in check here, but the savagery of this attack sent them over the edge.

AMER: And that's when I saw something that I never - I will never forget in my whole life. They just went crazy, you know. Fathers, brothers, they get (unintelligible) inside their houses, take their weapons and they start shooting on their neighbors.

GARCIA: It turned into a sectarian free-for-all.

AMER: Sunnis start shooting Shia houses, Shia start shooting Sunni houses - randomly. They let the real criminals run away. The men in the houses - they lost their mind totally.

GARCIA: Nine children were killed in the attack. Saleem knew many of them. Trouble in the neighborhood seems far from over, though. More men with guns from both sects have arrived. Shiite militiamen on one street, Sunni insurgents on another. Angry families in the middle of it all. There is nowhere, Saleem says, to turn for help.

AMER: The problem is that we don't have a leader on the neighborhood. There is no government in my neighborhood. So people allowed to kill each other's without any problems. It's like we are living in the zoo, you know. People turn to be animals yesterday.

GARCIA: Saleem is horrified at how his neighbors reacted. But he says he's been thinking the last few days about what he saw. Everyone has been pushed so far here, so he says, he also understands them.

AMER: Truly, I've been thinking about yesterday. What about if somebody killed my son, you know. I will - I'm going to kill more people if anything happened to my son.

GARCIA: There is no doubt the hatred is growing, Saleem says. And he says that after what happened in his neighborhood, he feels like Iraq is ready to explode.

AMER: People want a declared civil war so it can settle everything. Because these reconciliation plans - security plans - it's nothing.

GARCIA: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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