The Shiite boys and young men, some as young as 15, ran through its normally placid streets carrying out mock exercises for urban warfare since the toughest battles against the Sunni extremists are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught how to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn't fire them.
These young fighters could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which provides billions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Iraqi government. The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the United States cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.
Hundreds of students have gone through training at the dozens of such summer camps in Baghdad, Basra and other cities run by the Popular Mobilization Forces, the government-sanctioned umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias. The camps were created after the country's top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students as young as middle-school age to use their school vacations to prepare for battle if they are needed.
Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by the AP this month, about half were under the age of 18. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.
One 15-year-old in the class, Jaafar Osama, said he used to want to be an engineer when he grows up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting alongside the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.
"God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe," he said.
It's yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq's brutal war as the military, Shiite militias, Sunni tribes and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants who seized much of the country's north and west last year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos. This month, Human Rights Watch said that Syrian Kurdish militias fighting the militants continue to deploy underage fighters.
The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces and has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias which are among the fighters under its umbrella. But the PMF receives weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and is trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.
When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. is "very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization forces in the fight against ISIL," using an acronym for the militant group. "We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so."