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VIDEOS SHOW YOUNG CROP OF MILITANTS

Al-Qaida appears to be training boys as young as 10.

Boys in soccer jerseys don black masks and grab weapons. They scramble over mud-brick walls, blast down doors and hold guns to the heads of residents inside.

The U.S. military said videos seized from suspected al-Qaida in Iraq hideouts show militants training children who appear as young as 10 to kidnap and kill. It's viewed as a sign that the terror network - hungry for recruits - may be using younger Iraqis in propaganda to lure a new crop of fighters.

"Al-Qaida in Iraq wants to poison the next generation of Iraqis," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman. "It is offering children as the new generation of mujahedeen," he added, using the term for holy warriors.

The video, shown to reporters Wednesday, depicted an apparent training session with masked boys - ammunition belts draped across their small chests - forcing a man off his bicycle at gunpoint and marching him off down a muddy lane. An off-camera voice, speaking with an Iraqi accent, instructs children how to take positions with assault rifles.

At one point, the boys huddle in a circle on a cement floor, solemnly pledging allegiance to al-Qaida.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said they could offer no estimate of how many children have joined the insurgency.

Young children are rarely behind insurgent attacks in Iraq, though they have been used as decoys. In March, police said children were used in a car bombing in which the driver gained permission to park in a busy shopping area after pointing out that he was leaving his kids in the back seat. The children were killed along with three Iraqi bystanders.

The military said the videos - seized in a December raid in Khan Bani Saad northeast of Baghdad - were filmed in Iraq and depicted Iraqi children, but offered no definitive evidence. Smith said the adult trainer's voice had an Iraqi accent. It could not be determined when the videos were made, he added.

The scenes included boys mimicking the violence and aggression that have become familiar to Iraqi children since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But the footage also appeared to show organized militant training sessions, suggesting an effort by al-Qaida-inspired insurgents to train ever-younger - and perhaps less conspicuous - militants.

The raw footage was likely to be incorporated into propaganda films for al-Qaida or other militant groups.

FAST FACTS

Other developments

-The United Nations' torture investigator criticized the White House on Wednesday for defending the use of waterboarding and urged the U.S. to give up its defense of "unjustifiable" interrogation methods. The comments from Manfred Nowak, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, came a day after the Bush administration acknowledged publicly for the first time that waterboarding was used on three terror suspects. "This is absolutely unacceptable under international human rights law," Nowak said.

-Military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $170-billion in the next fiscal year over and above the $515.4-billion regular Pentagon budget that President Bush has proposed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.

-The top uniformed military officer described a tired U.S. military force, worn thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unlikely to come home in large numbers anytime soon. "We must get Army deployments down to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

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