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In Syria, girls march as timebomb ticks

The girls circle the stage in a nightclub outside of Damascus, holding hands in protective pairs as they march, always counterclockwise, at the same slow pace, one unenthusiastic step per second.   

It's 3 a.m., but bright as a hospital ward in here.  The club owners leave on the fluorescent lights so customers can get a good look at what's for sale.  The girls' faces are painted in slashes of pink blush. Their lipstick is drab browns and beiges.  They want it that way, so it doesn't distract from their eyes, accented with glittering splashes of emerald green and sapphire blue.  Many girls connect their thin, shaped eyebrows with a black pencil, and have orange and yellow plastic flowers in their long hair, blackened with henna.

One girl, gawky and about 13, has eyeglasses tucked into the top of her tight, lilac sequined dress.  Her sister, who says she's 14, chews bubble gum and keeps borrowing the glasses.  She can't see when she puts them on and waves her hands in front of her, pretending to be blind.  It makes the sisters laugh.  They are bored circling all night.  I guess they also want to forget where they are.  Maybe it helps if you can't see.  The 14-year-old also has a mobile phone stuffed into her bra.  She pulls it out when men, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, call her over to their tables to exchange 'missed calls.'  The men call the next day and negotiate a price and a meeting place.

There are dozens of clubs just like this one the outskirts of Damascus -- a red light district built on the slender shoulders of little Iraqi girls in belly dancing costumes. The girls are nearly all Iraqi refugees forced into what U.N. relief agencies call "survival sex."  The reason why is cold math.  There are 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.  Syrian laws do not allow Iraqi refugees to work in Syria, which struggles to provide enough jobs for its own citizens.  But Iraqi children can often slip under the law, especially if they work on the black market.  They work to support their families.  Many were traumatized even before they left Iraq, and had relatives murdered or kidnapped.  Now they are forced into prostitution -- victims of war, victimized again every night.

Some of the girls we saw also looked very young, perhaps under six years old.  The club owner told us they were younger sisters or cousins who had come to the club because they couldn't find babysitters.  But the little girls were dressed in tight costumes and gyrated in unbalanced pirouettes.  They were apprentices and once on stage, everything has a price.

It is difficult to imagine how these girls will ever recover from the trauma of the war and subsequent exploitation.  A senior U.N. official told me the refugee crisis is a 'time bomb' in the Middle East waiting to explode, creating rage that is building from Baghdad to the nightclubs of Damascus, rage directed mostly at the United States and its war in Iraq.

Richard's complete report will air on Tuesday's 'Nightly News' broadcast.