BAQUBA - Iraq's children have been more gravely affected by the U.S. occupation than any other segment of the population.
The United Nations estimated that half a million Iraqi children died during more than 12 years of economic sanctions that preceded the U.S. invasion of March 2003, primarily as a result of malnutrition and disease.
But childhood malnutrition in Iraq has increased 9 percent since then, according to an Oxfam International report released last July.
A report from the non-governmental relief organisation Save the Children shows Iraq continues to have the highest mortality for children under five. Since the first Gulf War, this has increased 150 percent. It is estimated that one in eight children in Iraq dies before the fifth birthday: 122,000 children died in 2005 alone. Iraq has a population of about 25 million.
According to a UN Children's Fund report released this month, "at least two million Iraqi children lack adequate nutrition, according to the World Food Programme assessment of food insecurity in 2006, and face a range of other threats including interrupted education, lack of immunisation services and diarrhoea diseases."
IPS interviewed three children from different districts of Baquba, the capital city of Iraq's volatile Diyala province, 40 km northeast of Baghdad.
Firas Muhsin is seven, and lives in Baquba with his mother. His father was killed two years ago by militants who shot him in his shop.
Firas attends school four hours every day near his house. On rare occasions he gets to play with neighbours' children, but always under the eyes of his mother.
Firas is allowed to move no more than ten metres from the house; his mother is afraid of strangers. Kidnapping of Iraqi children is common now, and many are believed to have been sold as child labourers or as sex workers.
Iraqi officials and aid workers have recently expressed concern over the alarming rate at which children are disappearing countrywide in Iraq's unstable environment.
Omar Khalif is vice-president of the Iraqi Families Association (IFA), an NGO established in 2004 to register cases of the missing and trafficked. He told reporters in January that on average at least two Iraqi children are sold by their parents every week. In addition, another four are reported missing every week.
"The numbers are alarming," Khalif said. "There is an increase of 20 percent in the reported cases of missing children over a year."
Firas spends hours each day sitting at the door looking at people. The door is his only outlet. In the afternoon, his mother calls him inside to do his homework. After dinner, his big hope is to watch cartoons -- if there is electricity from their private generator.
The mother faces a shortage of kerosene needed just for heating. "My children feel cold and I cannot afford kerosene," she told IPS.
Many children Firas's age do not get to school at all. According to the UN, 17 percent of Iraqi children are permanently out of primary school, and an estimated 220,000 more are missing school because they and their families have been displaced. That adds up to 760,000 children out of primary school in 2006.
These are in-country figures, and do not include the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and youth whose education is interrupted or ended because their families have fled to other countries. UNHCR estimates that at least 2.25 million Iraqis have fled their country.
Qusay Ameen is five, and lives with his mother, father, two sisters and a brother. His father was a sergeant in the former military, and is now unemployed. He receives a monthly pension of 110 dollars. He tries to support the family by selling cigarettes on the roadside. Qusay's mother is a housekeeper. Qusay hopes to begin school next year when he turns six.
After breakfast, always something simple like fried tomato with bread, Qusay wants to play, but he has nothing to play with but a small broken plastic car his brother found near the neighbour's door. He spends most of the morning playing with this car. He seems happiest when he gets to visit his neighbour's house, because they have a swing in the garden.
Like most Iraqi children now, Qusay has grown used to being in need. He rarely gets sweets, or new clothes.
The family house is incredibly small -- one bedroom and a place used as both kitchen and bathroom. Everyone sleeps in one room, which is extremely cold through the winter months. There are not enough beds or covering, and everyone has to sleep close together for warmth.
The house has few basic necessities, and of course no television or useful household appliances. There is a small kerosene cooker used for both cooking and heating.
According to the UN Children's Fund, only 40 percent of children nationwide have access to safe drinking water, and only 20 percent of people outside Baghdad have a working sewerage service. About 75,000 children are among families living in temporary shelters.
Ali Mahmood, 6, has lived with his uncle in Baquba after his parents were killed by a mortar explosion two years ago in random shelling by militants. Next year he will join primary school near his uncle's house.
Ali's days are alike, and quiet. His only friends are his uncle's children. When they go to school, he simply spends his time alone. It does seem the uncle's family is not able to look after him as well as his own might have. His uncle Thamir is doing his best, but life is difficult, and Thamir has responsibility for a big family.
Ali is deprived of just about everything in childhood; he has no place to play, or things to play with. And he has nobody to think of his future.
And already, he has responsibilities waiting; he has been told he must take care of his younger brother when he grows up.
Firas, Qusay and Ali are all children, but none the way children should be.
Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq's Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East
© 2008 Inter Press Service