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For Iran's child soldiers, capture by the Iraqis is a mixed blessing

SHIRZAD lasted about 24 hours on the battlefield. He'd been sent out ahead of his countrymen - a 12-year-old boy ordered to be a human minesweeper, setting off mines by poking them or jumping on them so that the adult soldiers behind him could advance safely.

During his one day of war, Shirzad saw boys around him being blown up. He was blinded in one eye by a mine shard and captured by Iraqi troops.

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``I didn't have any arms to fight,'' he recalls. ``So I surrendered.''

Shirzad is 15 now. Along with a few hundred other former Iranian child soldiers, he lives in a special Iraqi prisoner-of-war camp for children - a combination of camp and school that two Western humanitarian organizations helped set up in 1985.

Like the other POWs, Shirzad is reasonably comfortable. He can play soccer or watch television, cook meals, paint, weave, study English, or read a book.

But the exploitation of Shirzad isn't over yet. Although he is now far from the battlefield, he is still a pawn of adults at war: Shirzad and the other young Iranian POWs make great propaganda for the Iraqis.

When Western journalists come to Iraq to write about the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war, they almost always come to visit the camp where Shirzad lives.

Maj. Ali Mustafa, the head of Camp No. 7, always sees visiting journalists before they are given a full tour of the fenced-in compound. He makes a little speech, stressing the ``humane'' treatment given to the children in accord with the Geneva Convention. He describes the wide variety of activities available to the POWs, and he says the prisoners have ``good morale.''

``We try to have meetings with the children,'' he says, ``to know their problems.''

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What Major Mustafa won't tell reporters is why there are only a few hundred children in the school, and why the other hundreds of children who have been captured and are held in other camps do not participate in this school.

He won't explain why the POWs in Camp No. 7 have been captive for at least three or four years, and why recently captured child prisoners are nowhere to be found.

Mustafa also doesn't seem to know why so many of the children POWs offer the same answer to a reporter's questions. Over and over again, the young boys offer a virtually identical response to the question Why did you go to war? ``Propaganda,'' they answer. What did the propaganda say? ``That the Iraqis are pagans and that we must go fight them.''

One 14-year-old says three times in the course of a five-minute interview that he went to war because of Iranian propaganda. Other POWs speak of the Iraqis as their brothers. Many denounce Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ``I hope he dies as soon as possible,'' says one.

``It's a showcase [for the Iraqis],'' says Yves Lador of Defense for Children International (DCI), a Geneva-based children's-rights organization that helped persuade the Iraqis to establish the camp and co-funds the salary of a Western teacher who works with boys at the camp.

``Clearly the Iraqis have an interest in this,'' he says. ``That's why they agreed to open their doors to us.''

UNLIKE the Iraqis, DCI and Terre des Hommes, a Swiss organization that is the other Western group involved with the school, do not like journalists visiting the camp. They say that repeated visits by reporters interfere with the schooling purpose of the program.

``The whole camp becomes too much of a propaganda question,'' says Mr. Lador. ``We just want it to be a POW camp with a training program.''

Terre des Hommes and DCI are walking a very fine line between pushing for children's rights and not overstepping their welcome from the Iraqi government. When the special camp for children was first opened on Jan. 6, 1985, the two organizations had access to POW children in other camps - children who in some instances were still ardently pro-Khomeini, and who refused to participate in the school because they saw it as a weapon of propaganda.

But during a more than eight-month period in 1986 there was no Western representative at Camp No. 7. The Iraqis refused to renew the work visa for the man who had been teaching there. When a new representative was found and sent to the Iraqi camp late last year, pro-Khomeini children were hard to find. Access to children outside the camp was cut.

DCI and Terre des Hommes are now negotiating with the Iraqis for more interaction with other child prisoners of war. Lador says the process is slow but the Iraqis are ``cooperative.'' He is also quick to acknowledge that, as a country at war, Iraq has ``enormous difficulties'' - and that change takes time.

Some children's-rights activists accuse DCI of compromising their role as critics of the abuses of children's rights by its involvement in a situation so sensitive that frank criticism is almost impossible.

But Lador defends the work of DCI and Terre des Hommes. The two organizations, he says, are trying to fulfill the rights of children - especially the right to education.

He points out that many of the POWs are learning skills that may help them when they eventually return to a normal life. And Lador argues that, for at least some of the children, this payoff helps balance off the fact that the Iraqis are scoring good image points from the presence of the camp.

``If there wasn't this common interest [between us and the Iraqis] in the children, we simply wouldn't be inside the camp,'' says Lador. But the fact is, ``that contradiction [of interests] is at the root of the whole matter. And we have to live with it.

``The question,'' he insists, ``is who will make the best use of that contradiction.

``We are trying to use it for humanitarian causes.''

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