The Raad brothers, and tens of thousands of children like them in this poor walled-in Shiite Muslim district, have been shaped by war, honed by poverty. They are witnesses to sectarian violence, Shiite militias, angry sermons echoing through mosques, Humvees gurgling through streets and pictures of religious leaders and wanted men hovering on billboards. These children may not know grammar and punctuation, but they know what to do when the bullets come, how to take cover, to hide from the kidnappers, the militants and the soldiers.
Bloodshed and years of unrest are harsh teachers, especially in Sadr City, where 30% of children have quit school, according to a Baghdad human resources office. That estimate is probably low. A United Nations report found that 94% of boys in Iraq attend elementary school, but that drops to 44% by high school. For girls, 81% start elementary school; 31% go on to high school.