Shiite militias are encouraging children — some as young as 6 — to hurl stones and gasoline bombs at U.S. convoys, hoping to lure...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Shiite militias are encouraging children — some as young as 6 — to hurl stones and gasoline bombs at U.S. convoys, hoping to lure American troops into ambushes or provoke them into shooting back, U.S. soldiers say.

Gangs of up to 100 children assemble in Sadr City, stronghold of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army militia, and in nearby neighborhoods, U.S. officers said.

American soldiers have seen young men, their faces covered by bandannas, talking with the children before the rock-throwing attacks begin and sometimes handing out slingshots so the volleys will be more accurate, the troops said.

“It’s like a militia operation. They’ll mass rocks on the last or second-to-last vehicle” in a U.S. patrol, said Capt. Chris L’Heureux, 30, of Woonsocket, R.I. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re utilizing these kids in a deliberate, thought-out way.”

Al-Sadr’s followers insist they are not organizing attacks by children. “Such behavior by Iraqi children is spontaneous and the natural reaction from innocent children who are witnessing horrible deeds committed by the occupation forces in Iraq,” said Ali al-Yassiri, an aide to al-Sadr.

Militants have used children before. Marines in Ramadi said Sunni Arab insurgents often send children to check out U.S. defenses or warn of approaching patrols. The incidents have seemed to increase since U.S. soldiers moved their security offensive into Shiite neighborhoods surrounding eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City. The offensive in the capital is aimed at curbing the power of the Mahdi army and other sectarian militias.

At one checkpoint, soldiers said hundreds of rocks rained down on their vehicles as they sealed off a neighborhood during a house-to-house search for weapons and militants.

U.S. officers think the militias are trying to provoke American soldiers into firing at the children or chasing the soldiers into areas where snipers are waiting.

“Right now the reason we’re not [pursuing] is because it’s a trap,” 1st Lt. Bernard Gardner, 25, of Kinnear, Wyo., said as a group of children pelted his Stryker armored vehicle with rocks. “There’s probably one or two snipers out there waiting for us to get in range.”

The soldiers are also wary of firing warning shots in return, worried that could exacerbate sectarian passions and turn Shiite civilians against the Americans.

“If we point a gun at a kid and they take a photo of it, they’ll make a zillion fliers out of it,” Gardner said. “That’s why we have to be so delicate with the rock throwers.”

Most children, even in traditionally hostile areas, typically approach U.S. troops to ask for water or candy, not to ambush them. Even as gangs roamed near Sadr City one recent day, soldiers kept playing with children on tamer blocks nearby.

Since firing back is considered out of the question, U.S. soldiers have resorted to other methods to control the children.

On a major road leading into Shaab, in eastern Baghdad, U.S. soldiers stopped all civilian vehicles and pedestrians to pressure adults into dispersing a group of children that were attacking American vehicles.

“If you can’t control your kids, you can’t use this road,” yelled Sgt. 1st Class Eric Sheehan, 33, of Jennerstown, Pa. One pedestrian responded: “But they’re not from this neighborhood.”

Some adults eventually persuaded the children to leave, at least for a few hours.

Other Iraqi adults have been more helpful. After several rocks were thrown at passing U.S. vehicles in Shaab, soldiers followed one child home. When soldiers told his mother what had happened, she slapped her son.

Soldiers also are using new tools, such as high-decibel speakers, to scare away children. Some youngsters scampered away this week as soon as a soldier pointed a handheld speaker in their direction.