MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq – Two boys approached a U.S. soldier, pulled out a pistol and handed it over. They got a smile and some candy in return.
The gun was plastic, and the boys were following a local Iraqi military order to surrender all toy weapons — an effort to prevent children from being mistaken for insurgents.
With more children on the streets now that violence is down, American soldiers have a new mission in this former "triangle of death" city south of Baghdad: clearing all toy guns from the bustling shopping area as they search for suspected insurgents and weapons caches.
The toy gun ban shows how jittery the U.S. and Iraqi forces still are in a country where the enemy doesn't wear a uniform.
The U.S. warned early this year of a "disturbing trend" of Al Qaeda in Iraq recruiting and teaching young boys to kidnap and kill. The military released several videos seized from suspected al-Qaida hideouts in Diyala province north of the capital showing militants training children who appeared as young as 10.
Teenagers have also carried out actual attacks. On Dec. 1, a teenage suicide bomber followed by a parked car bomb struck police recruits in Baghdad, killing 16 people. On Jan. 20, a teenager carrying a box of candy blew himself up at a gathering of tribal members near Fallujah, killing six people.
From a distance, a soldier can't tell whether the weapon is real and has to make a fast decision that could cost someone his or her life.
Soldiers in the Mahmoudiya area recently became alarmed when they saw a boy pointing a gun that looked very realistic. They went on alert and held the child until it was determined that the gun was a toy.
"This is one of the biggest issues that we're encountering right now," said Lt. Cameron Mays, 24, of Marion, Ky. "Right now it's a gray area. You're talking about a prime situation where a U.S. soldier has a split-second to make a decision about whether there's a danger."
The order to ban toy guns in Mahmoudiya and surrounding areas was handed down by Staff Maj. Gen. Ali Jassim al-Freiji, the commander of the Iraqi army's 17th Division, which oversees the region.
1st Lt. Tray Marsh, who took the plastic pistol, congratulated the boys for doing the right thing as he and other U.S. soldiers began a joint foot patrol with their Iraqi counterparts through the city's main market area on Wednesday. The gun was black and had a red cap.
Members of Delta Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, based in Fort Riley, Kan., have collected some 15 plastic weapons in the past two weeks, piling them up on filing cabinets and hanging some on the walls in their office at the U.S. base at Mahmoudiya.
Marsh, 34, of Shreveport, La., later showed another gun from the plastic weapons cache that could easily be mistaken for a real nickel-plated .45-caliber pistol from a distance.
There's no punishment for having a toy gun. The soldiers will just take them away if they find them and perhaps talk to the parents to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Going after toys is somewhat of a welcome change for the soldiers — many of whom are on at least their second tour in Iraq and participated in the fierce fighting that raged as recently as this spring. Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of the capital, is part of a region that was long known as the "triangle of death" because of ongoing battles between Sunni and Shiite extremists.
British soldiers in the southern Iraqi province of Basra have also become concerned about children playing with toy guns, although no ban has been imposed.
The British military issued a public safety announcement on Friday asking parents not to allow their children to play with toy guns on the streets "in case security forces mistake them for real weapons and open fire."
Maj. Bill Young, a British military spokesman, said the issue was coming up for the first time since the war started nearly six years ago — perhaps because of a possible influx of toy guns or because better security is encouraging people to spend more time outdoors.
"Maybe last year children wouldn't have been out on the ground and their parents wouldn't have let them play with the toy guns," he said. "But there is still a risk with a significant number of British and Iraqi troops on the ground with weapons."
Military officials said it was up to Iraqi authorities to impose such bans as part of local security measures. Iraq has no law forbidding ownership of real guns, and every household is permitted to have one firearm for self defense.
But nobody likes to see a child cry — and even battle-weary soldiers have a soft spot.
Mays stopped short during Wednesday's market tour after getting a call on his radio about the latest discovery, then doubled back to the soldiers hovering around the toddler cradling the toy gun.
Iraqi company commander 1st Lt. Mouwaffak Mohammed al-Janabi talked his American counterpart into letting the boy keep the toy, saying his father had been killed by an insurgent.
"OK, but that's the last time. We've got to support Gen. Ali's orders," Mays said.