- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

FORWARD OPERATING BASE THUNDER, Afghanistan — The story of a 6-year-old Afghan boy who says he thwarted an effort by Taliban militants to trick him into being a suicide bomber provoked tears and anger at a meeting of tribal leaders.

The account from Juma Gul, a dirt-caked child who collects scrap metal for money, left American soldiers dumbfounded that a youngster could be sent on such a mission. Afghan troops crowded around the boy to call him a hero.

Though the Taliban dismissed the story as propaganda, at a time when U.S. and NATO forces are under increasing criticism for civilian casualties, both Afghan tribal elders and U.S. military officers said they are convinced by his dramatic account.

Juma said that sometime last month, Taliban fighters forced him to wear a vest they said would spray flowers when he touched a button. He said they told him that when he saw U.S. soldiers, “throw your body at them.”

The militants cornered Juma in a Taliban-controlled district in southern Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. Although he is but an impoverished youngster being raised by an older sister — he proved too street-smart for their plan.

“When they first put the vest on my body, I didn’t know what to think, but then I felt the bomb,” Juma told the Associated Press as he ate lamb and rice after being introduced to the elders at the joint U.S.-Afghan base in Ghazni. “After I figured out it was a bomb, I went to the Afghan soldiers for help.”

While Juma’s story could not be independently verified, local government leaders backed his account and the U.S. and NATO military missions said they believe his story.

Abdul Rahim Deciwal, chief administrator for Juma’s village of Athul, brought the boy and an older brother, Dad Gul, to a weekend meeting between Afghan elders and U.S. Army Col. Martin P. Schweitzer.

Col. Schweitzer called the Taliban’s attempt “a cowardly act.”

As Mr. Deciwal told Juma’s story, 20 Afghan elders clicked their tongues in sadness and disapproval. When the boy and his brother were brought in, several of the turban-wearing men welled up with tears, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs.

“If anybody has a heart, then how can you control yourself [before] these kids?” Mr. Deciwal said in broken English.

Wallets quickly opened, and the boys were handed $60 in American and Afghan currency — a good chunk of money in a country where teachers and police earn $70 a month.

Afghan officials described the boys as extremely poor, and Juma said he is being raised by his sister because his father works in a bakery in Pakistan and his mother does domestic work in another village.

“I think the boy is intelligent,” Mr. Deciwal said. “When he comes from the enemy, he found a checkpoint of the [Afghan National Army], and he asked the ANA: ‘Hey, can you help me? Somebody gave me this jacket, and I don’t know what’s inside, but maybe something bad.’ ”

Lt. Col. George Graff, a father of five who attended the meeting, also teared up.

“Relating to them as a father and trying to fathom somebody using one of my children for that kind of a purpose … it just tore me up,” said Col. Graff, a National Guard soldier from St. George, Utah. “The depths that these people will go to get what they want, which is power for themselves — it’s just disgusting.”

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, denied the militant group uses child fighters, saying it has hundreds of adults ready for suicide missions.

“We don’t need to use a child,” Mr. Ahmadi told the AP by satellite phone. “It’s against Islamic law; it’s against humanitarian law. This is just propaganda against the Taliban.”

However, a gory Taliban video that surfaced in April showed militants instructing a boy of about 12 as he beheaded a purported traitor with a large knife. U.N. officials condemned the act as a war crime.

Fidgety but smiling during all of the attention, Juma told the AP that he was scared when he was surrounded by Taliban fighters. He cupped his hands together to show the size of the bomb, then ran his hands along his waist to show where it was on his body.

Raised in a country where birthdays are not always carefully tracked, Juma said he is 4. But he looks older and Afghan officials said he is about 6. His brother appears to be a year or so older.

Their village lies in Ghazni province’s Andar district, a Taliban stronghold targeted this month in a joint Afghan-U.S. operation. The region remains dangerous, and Afghan elders worry for Juma’s safety.

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