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Love affair between children, troops sours
An Iraqi girl gives a kiss to a US soldier in Baghdad. (AFP)

Mosul, April 26 (Reuters): The love affair between US troops and Iraqi children is turning sour.

As the invading troops pushed north towards Baghdad in the first weeks of the war, it was always the children in every town that came out first to smile, wave, give the thumbs-up and shout the same greeting: “Good, good, good!”

Happy to see a friendly face, the soldiers waved back and many handed out candies from their field rations. But this correspondent, who has travelled with US troops since the start of the war, has seen more and more of the encounters ending with some children, usually the older ones in their early teens, hurling stones at the soldiers.

It can be a Catch 22 situation for the troops. If they let the children swarm around them, they expose themselves to possible attack from adults who can use the cover to get close and throw in a hand grenade. But if they push them back, it hurts their efforts to win over the civilian population, and can spark the stone throwing.

“It’s frustrating. They’re like little gnats that you can’t get away,” said Captain James McGahey, a company commander of the 101st Airborne Division who says almost every one of the patrols he sends out in the northern city of Mosul gets stoned.

“Everybody loves kids but it’s impossible to love 300 of them when they all want to touch you, talk to you and grab you, especially when there are a few out there who want to chuck stones.”

In one typical incident this weekend, a group of soldiers on foot patrol attracted an ever-increasing posse of children as they moved past a local fire station and on through a rough neighbourhood of Mosul.

By the time they reached a school building, at least 200 children and a small group of adults were around them, and the stones came raining in from about a dozen of the older kids.

“They were throwing them like they were pitching a baseball,” said Sergeant John McLean, who was hit on the helmet, in the back and on the heel.

The troops pulled away and took up a defensive position but even then the children and adults only dispersed when a warning shot was fired over their heads. “Everyone tries to be as nice as we can with them but it does get difficult. They definitely impede the job we’re trying to do because you have to put half your guys on keeping the children away,” McLean said.

The problem is not confined to Mosul. Crowds of 250-300 Iraqi teenagers hurled stones at US Marines patrolling the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq on Thursday and yesterday, officers said.

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