SITTING cross-legged on the mosque floor, the 12-year-old boys listen avidly as the tough-looking man in front of them holds up a rocket-propelled grenade.
"Be careful of the Americans, but don’t fear their vehicles and technology," he says, turning the diamond-shaped warhead before a dozen pairs of widening eyes. "You see this small bomb? It can destroy any US Army Humvee and all the soldiers inside."
Placing the missile back in a wooden box beside him, the teacher then passes a wrapped lump of plastic explosive around the class, sparking a flurry of grasping hands. "Come on! It’s my turn," hisses one impatient young boy at his neighbour.
So begins lesson one of jihad for juniors, the newest recruits to Iraq’s insurgency. After nearly two years of struggle which has decimated their adult ranks, resistance commanders are grooming a fresh generation of child soldiers to carry on the fight.
Most of the narrow young shoulders huddled together in the Al Mazra’a mosque are still a few years off being able to cradle a Kalashnikov properly, let alone a powerful grenade launcher. But with the resistance convinced that the US-led occupation will never end, their mentors are in no doubt that their time will come.
"The Jewish have killed our families here in Iraq and they want to occupy our land and steal all the oil and fortunes," warns a stern-looking cleric before the class begins.
"The resistance fights for you and your future, but in a few years’ time you will have to replace them on the battlefield. As we die, we shall depend on you to release Iraq from occupation."
Exactly how many pre-teen and teenage fighters are waiting in the wings is, like every other aspect of Iraq’s shadowy guerrilla cadre, a statistical unknown. But coalition commanders believe they are playing an increasingly frontline role, due to a fall in the numbers of adult insurgents in recent months.
The number of hardcore fighters might now be only about 3,500, a fraction of previous estimates of 20,000.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, are already noticing a dramatic drop in the age of attackers.
"The ringleaders are paying kids to do a lot of their attacks now because they have lost a lot of the senior people," said Lieutenant Asif Khamel, a senior officer at a US and Iraqi-run police station in the Sunni Triangle city of Baquba, where a 12-year-old boy was recently arrested during a mortar attack.
"The people attacking us are getting a lot younger. We recently arrested three kids aged 17 or so who killed some police officers."
Hisham Hussein, a policeman in Baghdad’s notorious Haifa Street, added: "I would say we have about 50 children aged 15 to 16 fighting here, and some as young as nine or 10 who are used as spies. Recently we arrested four 13-year-olds during an attack on our forces."
Among many of the child soldiers who pass through the Al Mazra’a mosque, the driving force is not just cash or kudos, but parental pride.
For Abu Juma, a mid-ranking local fighter, bringing his 11-year-old son on missions planting roadside bombs for US forces seems as natural as taking him fishing. He said: "I take him on as many operations as I can. It is the best way for him to learn about how to fight against the Americans."
A small, dirty-white building with a green dome, the al Mazra’a mosque is tucked away in woods outside the lawless Sunni town of Latifiya, in the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad.
The mosque’s young pupils join the ranks of one of the most ruthless insurgent chapters in the country. It was here that the gang who kidnapped and murdered British hostage Ken Bigley were given safe haven. And it was here in November that the Black Watch regiment lost five of their soldiers.
The boys’ teachers play skilfully on the thrill of joining a secret underground club. Each is given his own nom de guerre and warned not to tell anybody what he has learned. Halfway through the hour-long session, plates of baqlawa - an expensive pistachio cake well beyond the means of average families - delight the boys even more.
As class resumes, another teaching aid comes out: a brochure containing details of different kinds of landmines, complete with model numbers and killing distances. Eager hands spike up round the class. Can this one kill at 50 metres? Will they destroy a US tank?
The man nods and then describes, step by step, how to attack a passing convoy. "Choose a place where there are trees to hide yourself in, and aim the bomb at the first car. That makes the rest stop, and you can then mount a big attack.
"You should have someone filming it all with a camera too. That is your biggest gun. Offer your film to all the different TV channels, because when the people see this happen, they will realise that the Americans are losing power." Wagging a finger, he adds: "Remember: one bullet of a Kalashnikov can terrify the US Army. They can be very cowardly people."
Class is dismissed, and the youngsters file out along the muddy pathways that lead back to Latifiya. Yet for all the talk of military hardware and holy war, little time is devoted to what happens if it goes wrong.
The use of child soldiers has been widespread in Iraq. Young boys were recruited into Saddam’s army with a broad programme of recruitment and training. The Shi’ite militia in Iraq, the al-Mehdi army, also used young children.
About 90 under-18s are being held at US-run prisons at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca on suspicion of taking part in attacks, the youngest being just 14, according to Lt Col Barry Johnson, the US Army’s detainee operations spokesman.
With no juvenile courts in Iraq at present, they find themselves in a judicial limbo. "We try and let some of them stay with relatives, who act as guarantors for them, but for others who are clearly a security risk we have to keep them in jail," he said.
Those are the fortunate ones. Most US troops they attack make no secret that in the heat of battle, a child fighter looks no different from an adult. For many of the graduates of the al Mazra’a mosque, the thrill of being part of the gang may be brutally short-lived.