BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A year ago, a young gunman walked into Ali Hussein's living room and drew a weapon. The intruder's head was wrapped in a scarf, leaving a narrow slit for his eyes. His clothes were all black, the favorite attire of a powerful Shiite Muslim militia. He introduced himself as a commander, shouted the incantation "God is greater" and warned Sunni Muslims not to fight back. With that, he raised his plastic pistol.
The gunman's name is Hassoni, and he was only 4 years old at the time. The scene unfolded in his father's house in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, a sprawling Shiite Muslim district stretching toward the eastern edge of the Iraqi capital. "I was happy to see him this way because it means he has courage," Mr. Hussein, 26, said of his son. Since then, Hassoni's favorite game has grown more elaborate, migrating from the living room onto the neighboring streets, drawing in other children and increasingly emulating the violent world of the adults.
As Iraq careers toward full-scale civil war between its Shiite majority and Sunni minority, the culture of celebrating sectarian strife has taken root even among the very young in Sadr City. Home to more than two million people, the Baghdad district is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia blamed for abducting and killing Sunnis. But to Sadr City residents, the Mahdi Army is a revered self-defense force, the only group they see as capable of preventing wholesale slaughter of Shiites at the hands of Sunni extremists. Shiite politicians blame atrocities against Sunnis on rogue forces that falsely claim to represent the real Mahdi Army.
The celebration of sectarian violence is widespread here. Some militia leaders have acquired almost mythical status, including Abu Dera, an elusive gangster alleged to be behind some of the worst sectarian killings of Sunnis. In the lore of the streets, Abu Dera and other fighters are Zorro-like figures who strike into the heart of Sunni neighborhoods, dispense swift revenge and return home unharmed.
Hassoni, who is now 5, spends hours listening to such tales in his family's grocery store, where customers routinely trade stories -- real and imagined -- of Shiite militias fighting Sunni insurgents. Abu Dera became his hero, and his father has helped encourage the adulation by playing songs on his stereo extolling the valor of Shiite gunmen. "Abu Dera is trying to kill the bad guys," said Mr. Hussein, who works as a security guard at the Ministry of Education and sometimes helps patrol his neighborhood.
A friendly boy with striking brown eyes and neatly combed hair falling over his forehead, Hassoni says he wants to grow up to be powerful enough to have a big car and armed guards surrounding him.
When he plays with friends, the boys divide themselves into two groups -- one Shiite and the other Sunni -- and shoot at each other with pellet guns, lurking behind cars and in roadside ditches. "Kids always refuse to be Sunnis, but because they need to play, some of them have to pretend to be Sunnis," said Mr. Hussein, who often watches his son's hours-long battles. Using trash, the children erect their own barricades. Hassoni likes to pretend to be Abu Dera and calls himself the leader of the gang. Other members include a boy nicknamed Bush Senior for his foreign-looking red hair. Hassoni often returns home with torn clothes and pellet bruises.
A few blocks away, Qassim Abdul-Ridha, a father of four, said his 6-year-old son, Karar, and his gang fight street battles against other children, often sending a girl to scout out the rivals' hiding places. Chanting "Muqtada" in homage to Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army, the boys try to capture their opponents' toy guns as trophies.
The real Mahdi Army is always nearby to provide inspiration. Sometimes, Hassoni hangs around grown-up gunmen manning the real roadblocks and runs errands for them, such as bringing them food and drink. He also gathers war stories and then breathlessly relays them to his parents. The latest tale Hassoni heard on the street involved a group of Shiite gunmen who mounted a rescue mission of Shiite hostages held by Sunni extremists. The gunmen ended up kidnapping the kidnappers and brought them to Sadr City. "He's very excited, always smiling, when he tells us these stories," his father said.
One day, Hassoni brought home a steel pipe he found in a garbage dump and declared it to be a rocket launcher, which he was going to use to fire mortars at Sunni neighborhoods, much as real militiamen do. Asked recently what he thinks of Sunnis, he answered with one word: "terrorists." Together with other children, Hassoni fills empty bottles with sand, and sticks a twig in them to resemble a fuse. The bottles serve as make-believe bombs for use against imaginary Sunnis or American patrols.
Hassoni's arsenal of toy guns has grown from one plastic pistol to include two AK-47 models and a sniper rifle with a scope, now his favorite weapon. Mr. Hussein gave him the rifle as a gift at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan when Iraqi families exchange presents. Hassoni was so excited, his father says, that he paid no attention to a toy train and a toy piano given to him by his mother and aunt. The black life-size rifle looks completely real.
The line between the game and real life has grown increasingly blurry. In late November, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs inside Sadr City, killing 240 Shiite civilians, the bloodiest attack since the U.S. invasion in 2003. The blasts occurred just over a mile from Mr. Hussein's house, and Hassoni saw the black plumes of smoke. Later that evening, Hassoni and other children patrolled their street looking for strangers. Hassoni started saying things like, "Sunnis hate us and don't want us to be anywhere near them," his father said.
A few days later, Hassoni and his gang spotted a boy they didn't know. They stopped him and demanded to know what he was doing on their street. "I heard the Mahdi Army saying that if you see strangers, ask them where they come from and what they are doing here," he said. "And that kid was not from our area." When the boy tried to run away, Hassoni and his friends caught him and beat him up.
Later, it turned out that the boy and his parents, all Shiites, were visiting relatives on Hassoni's street. "We had a lot of problems with our neighbors because of this fight," Mr. Hussein recalled. He said he sat his son down for a talk, telling him it is wrong to attack other boys. Hassoni promised to behave but said he will continue looking for strangers on his street.