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In Iraq, Sweet Promise Struck Down
Family Recounts Day When Son and 25 Other Children Died

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 19 -- Many of the boys in the dusty al-Khalij neighborhood of east Baghdad awoke to the news, rousing late on a hot, sleepy summer morning with no school. Their families recalled the excitement -- the American soldiers were here. And they were handing out candy.

Hamza Firas Khuzai, 11 years old, and his friends, many of them boys ages 9 to 12, rushed out without breakfast and mounted their clunky, hip-high bicycles, said Hadi Firas Khuzai, Hamza's father.

To boys Hamza's age, the words "American soldiers" meant mingling among armored troops who looked to them like action figures come to life. It meant laughs while clowning with the Americans, and candy, cookies or toys waiting to be dropped into their waving hands. Hamza's friends pedaled away, rushing toward the soldiers' Humvees at the far end of one block. Younger brothers and sisters trailed them, without wheels.

About 10 a.m. last Wednesday, a suicide bomber drove his brown Suzuki sedan and its load of explosives into the crowd of American soldiers and Iraqi children clustered around the Humvees, residents said. Twenty-six of al-Khalij's children died. The bomb killed boys old enough to play out in al-Khalij's streets and young enough to still want to. One U.S. soldier was killed and at least three others were wounded, the military said.

When the Americans first arrived, Hamza, the conscientious youngest son among six children, had stayed behind, according to his family. He had been helping his father repair a car. As word about the Americans spread, Hamza's father, Khuzai, sent him upstairs to fetch some car mats.

Khuzai looked around five minutes later, he recalled Monday, and realized that Hamza hadn't come back.

The boy seized the opportunity of being sent to fetch the mats to run outside the house. He met up with his friends by the American Humvees but came home crying five minutes later, his sister said. "He came back saying, 'The Americans were giving out candy and they didn't give me any,' " his father said.

Hamza headed indoors, where his sister demanded that he eat breakfast, she recalled. I'll be right back, he told her, and ran outside, through a side door to bypass his father.

"We all heard a big boom, and the metal came flying," Khuzai said Monday.

"I ran inside the house, saying, 'Where's Hamza?' "

Khuzai ran down the street, toward the smoke and dust.

He found the bodies of Karrar, Muhammed, Abbas and Ali, surrounded by their bicycles.

Hamza lay among them, facedown, a hole blown into his side. His right arm hung by the skin. White showed through his dangling right leg.

Khuzai ran home with him. "They said he was still alive," Khuzai said, and shook his head.

The oldest child killed was a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, residents of al-Khalij said. The youngest injured was a 4-day-old infant cut by flying glass, news reports said.

The children were among at least 1,500 Iraqi civilians killed by attacks since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's government took office April 28. But it was not Iraq's deadliest bombing of the week; a suicide bombing south of Baghdad on Saturday killed more than 100 Iraqis, mostly civilians, when it blew up a nearby fuel tanker.

In a 110-degree-plus summer in Baghdad, with wartime water and electricity shortages, gas lines again stretching from the pumps through neighborhoods and across the spans of highway overpasses, kidnappings, killings and bombings, and a government struggling to secure the country, the killing of 26 children quickly became al-Khalij's tragedy alone.

Hamza's father reflected on the silence, and recalled the July 7 bombings in London, which killed at least 56 people, including the bombers. "What happened in England drew condemnation from all the presidents and kings of the world. But when all our children here are gone, not even an Arab leader says a word," Khuzai lamented Monday. In the neighborhood, black funeral banners hung on front gates, sometimes two or more, for each dead child within.

Funerals for the children ended Sunday. Because of space limitations, families took turns putting up traditional funeral tents in the streets. Families marked each tent with name tags to help guide mourners to the right child's funeral.

Iraqi police stopped a Libyan in an explosives-rigged suicide vest as he walked toward one of the funerals Sunday, the U.S. military said. Officers subdued him before he could detonate the explosives.

Victims of last Wednesday's blast included brothers Abbas and Ali, brothers 7 and 9 years old born to a couple who had tried for 17 years to have children, neighbors said. Another boy, Jasem, died with a piece of candy and a key chain from the Americans still in one hand, residents said.

Two girls, like many Iraqi children this summer forbidden to play outside because of the danger, were killed when the bomb exploded on the street just outside, collapsing much of their house, residents said.

On Hamza's soccer team, only three boys survived, one because his father had taken him from the neighborhood on an errand, and another, Adil, because he slept in, residents said.

And there was Hamza himself, at 11 a solidly built boy who tried to pull his weight in the world.

"Hamza had something different from other kids -- he loved to work," said his brother, Firas, 22.

Firas displayed a gold jewelry box that Hamza had given their mother for Mother's Day, with a battery-powered red light illuminating the box's heart-shaped frame. "He worked to buy this for her," Firas said. "Even I didn't do that."

The family locked the box and Hamza's possessions -- small T-shirts, a green bike, an Atari game he would play each day -- in a side room. The sight of them grieved the mother, sitting silently, blankly, against the wall in the family's back room.

Hamza had spent much of his childhood with war. Shattered glass hung in the frames of his family's front windows, which like many in Baghdad had been broken by bombs too many times for the family to bother replacing them. Shrapnel had wounded an aunt recently as the family slept on the roof to try to stay cool in the heat. An uncle, 22, lay in a hospital, able only to blink, following a separate attack after he signed up as a policeman.

Hamza's sister, Athra, 18, recalled of her brother, "Since the war, all his games changed -- all about killing." But he also liked riding his bicycle and playing soccer, and dreamed of growing up to be an engineer, family members said.

On Monday, Athra held out a recent snapshot showing Hamza at a birthday party with his friends. Wid Hussein, a neighbor and the teenage sister of Mustafa, another of the boys who died, sat beside her.

The young women identified each grinning boy in the photo. Hamza. Abbas. Muhammed. Mustafa. Adil. Bilal. Sajad. Karrar. Ali.

They tapped an index finger on the smiling face of Hamza, who was flexing a muscle and wearing a bright red shirt.

"Died," they said.

They tapped the face of the boy next to Hamza, and each boy after. "Died. Died. Died. Died. Alive. In hospital. Died. Died. Died."

U.S. troops, hoping to show their good intentions and win popular support, and mindful that boys among those Hamza's age will grow up to be the insurgents or soldiers of the next few years, often hand out candy bought from local stores or saved from meals-ready-to-eat ration packets while on noncombat patrols.

For the U.S. soldiers, Iraqi children often provide the relief of welcoming faces in a strange country of suspicious, wary looks. For soldiers with families at home, the children also are a reminder of their own.

Iraqi children "always surround them, laugh, imitate the way they walk, go like this with them," Khuzai remembered, giving a thumbs-up as he and his family and other mourners gathered in the front room.

"Why?" Khuzai said. "They are using the children as shields."

U.S. military vehicles with loudspeakers broadcast Arabic-language warnings after last Wednesday's killings for civilians to stay away, news reports said. U.S. forces expressed regret at the bombings, which the Americans as well as the Iraqi families of the slain children said showed the barbarity of the attackers. Funeral banners echoed the sentiment.

"It wasn't the fault of the Americans," Hamza's father said later, relenting.

"It's their responsibility," said Wid Hussein. "The Americans brought all this tragedy to us."

"Don't say that -- it's not the Americans who are killing. It's the terrorists," Hamza's father answered.

"It's their responsibility," she shot back. "Why did they come here?"

On Monday, a single boy stood in the glare of the heat in the two blocks around Hamza's house, staring at something in his hand. He didn't look up as strangers passed.

"They didn't see anything of their life," said Hamza's uncle, Safa Khuzai, speaking of the boys who died. "They spent it with wars, no electricity, no water and no security," he added. "They were all the same age, born at the same time, went to the same school, played the same games, and died together at the same time."

"Even their funeral services at the same time," he said. "A whole generation of this neighborhood gone."

"The streets are so quiet now," Hamza's sister said. "So quiet."

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company