Iraqi security forces have arrested four children who were allegedly part of a group of youngsters being groomed by Al Qaeda to become suicide bombers, an Iraqi army general said.

The children, who were detained in a village near the northern city of Kirkuk, were part of a cell known as the “Birds of Paradise” and were being specially trained to avoid detection as they carried out attacks, security officials said.

“Special forces units have arrested an organization of children consisting of four individuals under the age of 14 who call themselves the 'Birds of Paradise,'" said General Abdelamir al-Zaidi, the commander of the Iraqi army division in Kirkuk. “The group relies on children and is connected to Al Qaeda. It works to recruit children and young people to carry out suicide attacks and to aid the terrorist groups in detonating roadside bombs.”

Al Qaeda groups have previously used Iraqi children to carry out attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, even using them in one instance as a cover to sneak a car bomb past a Baghdad checkpoint before detonating the device with the youngsters still inside. Militants have also been accused of using mentally disabled women as bombers.

Other insurgent groups have used children to fire rocket-propelled grenades and set roadside bombs, knowing that they were less likely to be shot at by soldiers.

The newly discovered children's cell appeared to derive its name from the Islamic belief that when children die they become birds of paradise.

Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by the Kurds as part of their semi-autonomous homeland to the north, lies between the two remaining areas where Al Qaeda is still a prominent force — Baqouba to the south and Mosul to the northwest. Tensions between rival Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen are high in the city, and there are fears that the ethnic fault line could split into a new conflict.

Iraqi security forces arrested several other people in the sweep, the general said. Another officer said that the use of children showed that Al Qaeda was becoming more desperate as the security forces grew in strength and ability.

“This is a new method and it is the method of someone who is losing the war,” he said. “Their infrastructure is being destroyed and their leaders are being arrested and killed. They are sending a message that, 'we are still here, but we have to rely on every method to carry out our terrorist operations.'"

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