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Iraq Transition

Iraqi kindergarten: Smiles and vows to fight

Story Highlights

• Iraqi kindergartners smile, play and also vow to fight
• One young boy says he wishes to bomb the school "with everybody in it"
• School has just 16 children, down from 180 before the war
• UNICEF: Iraq's children are caught in "rapidly worsening humanitarian tragedy"
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- At a recent kindergarten graduation ceremony, young girls smiled behind their brightly colored princess dresses and the boys showed off their best dress shirts. They sipped on juice boxes, played on swings and jumped on and off seesaws.

It was a welcome relief from the war that surrounds them. But when these 5-year-olds spoke, it became apparent just how much the ongoing violence has affected them.

"I'm going to bomb, bomb, bomb the school with everybody in it," said Omar Hussein, as he clutched a pink toy airplane.

At another point, a girl enthusiastically sang, "I give a knife to my father to slaughter the chicken. He gives me a machine gun and a rifle. Now, I am a soldier in the liberation army." (Watch the children make soldier pledges Video)

The same kindergarten taught up to 180 children just four years ago, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. Today, the class has just 16 children, a result of families fleeing the war or parents keeping their children at home, fearful of bombs or kidnap gangs.

A report issued Tuesday by UNICEF, the United Nations' children organization, found such stories are not uncommon. It says Iraq's children are "caught up in a rapidly worsening humanitarian tragedy."

"Violence is creating widows and orphans on a daily basis, many of whom are left to struggle for survival," the report says. "Many women are afraid to walk in the street while parents are afraid to let their children play outside."

UNICEF says since the start of the war in March 2003, nearly 15 percent of Iraq's total population has fled their homes. About 2.2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries -- mostly Jordan and Syria. Another 1.9 million are displaced within Iraq, the report says.

Half of the nearly 4 million displaced Iraqis are children, according to UNICEF.

"The needs of Iraq's vulnerable young citizens are quickly outstripping available help," the report says. "Displaced children are seeing their chance to learn slip away."

It adds, "Few safety nets are available to children who fall out of the education system altogether."

UNICEF says it urgently needs about $42 million for the next six months to help the displaced children -- funds that would be used for education, health care, sanitation and other humanitarian needs.

One sign that the situation is dire for children, UNICEF says, is a recent report of Iraq's first suspected cholera cases of the year, all of the victims children. Cholera is an ailment contracted by consuming contaminated water and reflects a crumbling infrastructure.

Only 30 percent of Iraq's children have access to safe water, according to UNICEF.

Back at the Iraqi kindergarten class, a better future can't come soon enough for a young boy named Shurouq.

"When I hear the bombs, I'm afraid," he says. "I close my ears."

The school's headmistress, Suhailah Ibrahim, says they try to reduce the stress level for the children as much as they can. When bombs go off or shots ring out, she says, "We usually tell them the explosions are far away from us."

Most of all, she says, they just want to "live like before."

"We want an end to the occupation," she says.

CNN's Hugh Riminton contributed to this report.


Only 16 children remain in this Iraqi kindergarten class, which had up to 180 children before the war began.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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