BAGHDAD -- Al Qaeda in Iraq is using kidnapped children to pick up weapons dropped in battle zones, get past checkpoints and die in car bombs, according to U.S. officials and Iraqis in Baghdad.
"Al Qaeda is using children to pick up weapons and ammunition knowing that U.S. troops will not shoot against children," said one U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
There has also been a reported incident in which children were used to drive safely past a checkpoint in order to detonate a car closer to a target.
"Men traveling with children in the back of their cars rarely get searched because they look like a family," said Hassan, a middle-aged Shi'ite living in one of the capital's older mixed neighborhoods.
"Then they leave the car and blow it up by remote control with the children in it," he said. Hassan, who did not want his full name used out of fear of retaliation, said at one point last year children with Down syndrome had been used to carry bombs.
Al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies are believed to be behind the recent more blatant attacks across the country, including with homemade chemical bombs.
In neighborhoods where al Qaeda is believed to have a strong presence, U.S. and Iraqi forces are in the process of building barriers around markets to prevent car bombs from getting in.
"There is an al Qaeda-related network that focuses solely on car bombs," said a second U.S. military official, who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The second military official, who is involved in the operations, also said that in some cases entire neighborhoods are being cordoned off and turned into "gated communities."
Iraqis living in Baghdad say part of the security plan has been successful, but that placing barriers all over the city of 6 million people is choking off life in the capital.
"In my neighborhood there is some control to stop everything, and it's good, you know," Hassan said. "All the major markets in Baghdad now have concrete shields, so you go by walking. It's good, yes."
But traffic jams caused by checkpoints and barrier bottlenecks have slowed the city down, forcing people to sit in their cars for hours to get home before the 8 p.m. curfew, leaving little time to work or walk to the markets.
Terrorists got around the neighborhood choke points by waiting until the American forces left, and then dragging the smaller concrete barriers out of the way. U.S. troops then laid larger 10-foot high concrete barriers down horizontally on top of each other. The terrorists built sand and trash berms high enough to drive over them, acknowledged the U.S. official.
"If you stop the car bombs, then there will be motorcycle bombs. If you stop the motorcycle bombs, they will use suicide bombers. The terrorists have a brain -- maybe they will capture a pigeon and put a bomb inside," Hassan said.
The only way to stop the terrorists, he said, was for Iraq's politicians to cut off support and money flowing to the Shi'ite militias, Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda networks.
U.S. forces are hoping that by cordoning off neighborhoods they will cut off the enemy's ability to smuggle in large amounts of cash or weapons.
"All we are looking for is a disruption effect," said the second military official.