BAGHDAD (AFP) – Try as he might, Baghdad businessman Ibrahim Georges can’t persuade his 11-year-old daughter Sandy to lay down her arms in favour of something less hostile, such as a doll.
“She loves her gun,” Georges said as Sandy, short-haired and dressed in long trousers and T-shirt, proudly displayed a menacing GC toy automatic rifle that, according to a bold stamp on the side, was made in China.
“She never plays with dolls,” added Georges ruefully, outside their home in a quiet residential street in the relatively calm western Karrada suburb.
“It has laser and can fire on regular or on automatic,” said Sandy, brandishing the gun that can spit out 6mm BB pellets hard enough to take out an eye and is sold in a box carrying a warning, “The best for 18 and up.”
“All the children in the streets have toy guns,” said Georges with a shrug, pointing to a gang of boys with whom he said his daughter plays “cops and robbers.”
“They see adults carrying guns all the time. Who can blame them?”
Children’s make-believe war games, which often reflect the sectarian conflict raging across Iraq, have alarmed some parents and educators, and the government has expressed concern at the flood of toy weapons on the streets.
Earlier this year, Trade Minister Abed Falah al-Sudani considered banning the toys because they look so realistic. However, given the seeming impossibility of the task, he appears to have shelved the idea.
Whether invented by parents to scare their children or whether it really happened, children all know the reason it would, perhaps, not be a good idea to point a plastic weapon anywhere near a US soldier.
“One boy was killed by an American soldier who mistook his toy for a real gun,” said one of Sandy’s friends, who gave his name as Zain and his age as 12, parroting the correct answer.
According to shopkeeper Uday Mohammed, the incident really did happen “about a year ago in Diyala province,” which is why he warns children buying guns from his store to be ultra careful about displaying them in public.
Mohammed said toy guns are his biggest sellers by far, and that there had been a run on imitation weapons during the just-ended Eid al-Fitr Muslim festival, when children are given new clothes and toys.
“I normally sell 10 to 12 guns a day,” he said, pointing to a range of weapons in boxes ranging from plastic pistols and crude weapons that shoot rubber darts, to an ultra-sophisticated automatic rifle that boasts laser, an “infrared callimater” and “illuminate blueness”.
“But over Eid we sold many, many more,” he said. “If the children were not coming in to buy guns, they were coming in to buy pellets.”
Prices range from 5,000 to 40,000 dinars (four to 32 dollars), but the favourite, according to 24-year-old Mohammed, is the MP7AI rifle, reasonably priced at 10,000 dinars.
“It is cheaper and it is the type of rifle children see in American movies; that’s why it is so popular,” said the computer engineer who is selling toys because he cannot find work in his own specialised sphere.
He said he was concerned at the increasing demand for toy guns, even though it was helping keep the tills jingling.
“I don’t think it is good; children become aggressive when they play with guns,” he said. “Children are seeing too many people with guns — from the police to the army to the militias.”
The only psychological study carried out in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 was on children by the Association of Psychologists of Iraq (API) early last year. It found that the violence was profoundly affecting them.
“The only things they have on their minds are guns, bullets, death and a fear of the US occupation,” said API spokesman Marwan Abdullah when he released the report.
Up in Baghdad’s northeastern suburb of Al-Shab, a Shiite bastion of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, young children too are pre-occupied with guns.
“I like toy guns; they are nice. We play cops and robbers chasing each others. All of my friends are carrying toy guns too,” said Riyadh, eight.
He added, with a shy smile, that he feels a hero carrying a gun, “just like the heroes in ‘Space Toon’ television.”
His neighbour, 10-year-old Haider, has another reason to play with his toy gun.
“I love it. I like holding it and going outside to kill evildoers. I like to go outside at night like my uncle (a member of the Mahdi Army),” said the boy wearing a ragged T-shirt.
Not far away in Sadr City. In the vast ghetto where Sadr is considered a hero and his militia calls the shots, children in their war games reflect the bitter sectarian divides — one side gets to be Shiite militiamen, the other Sunni insurgents.
In other neighbourhoods, it’s police versus “terrorists”, or army versus Al-Qaeda, according to local news reports.
Another vendor, Hassan, 27, runs a stall in Bab al-Sharji in the centre of Baghdad. He confirmed that guns are the all-time favourites with children, male or female.
“Children prefer guns to trains, balls or radios,” he said.