Female prisoners in Iraq become bargaining chips in hostage drama

Sunday, January 22, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In a conservative Islamic tribal society where women are closely guarded, nine female prisoners are being used as bargaining chips in the hostage drama of American journalist Jill Carroll.

Kidnappers had threatened to kill the 28-year-old freelance reporter for the Christian Science Monitor unless all female inmates in Iraq were released by Friday night. The deadline passed without word of Carroll's fate or the prisoners' release.

The U.S. military confirmed this week that it was holding eight women. However, Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim Ali said a ninth woman was arrested Jan. 6 -- one day before Carroll was abducted.

Little is known about these women, except that they are between 20 and 30 years old and face terrorism-related charges. Human rights activists believe many are detained to pressure wanted male relatives to turn themselves in.

It's not the first time the fate of a Western hostage has been linked to demands for the release of Iraqi female prisoners held in connection with the insurgency. Some hostages were eventually released -- even though women remained in custody.

It is unclear how many women have been jailed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 and how many were really involved in the insurgency.

But the practice of detaining women in security raids has become an inflammatory subject in this conservative society.

The U.S. military has tried to ease cultural sensitivities by ordering male troops not to touch Iraqi women and having female soldiers frisk them at checkpoints.

According to Ali, all nine female prisoners are being held in a single 23-by-13 foot cell at a U.S. detention facility near Baghdad airport. Each has her own bed.

None was aware of the kidnappers' demand for their release because detainees are not allowed to watch television news, he added. Ali also said the female detainees told him they had not been subjected to physical or psychological abuse and were guarded by women.

Rumors that Iraqi female prisoners have been abused are rife in this country since photos of sexual humiliation of male inmates by U.S. soldiers at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison first appeared nearly two years ago.

Violence continued elsewhere in Iraq Saturday. The U.S. military said Saturday a suicide car bomber killed two American Marines a day earlier in the volatile Anbar provincial town of Haqlaniyah, northwest of Baghdad. At least 2,224 U.S. military personnel have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Sunni Arab politicians, meanwhile, said they were ready for talks to join a new government of national unity -- hailed by the United States as a necessary step to curb the Sunni-led insurgency and pave the way for American forces to go home.

A car bomb exploded midday near a crowded market in eastern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding six, according to police. Three policemen were killed and five were injured in a car bombing in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, authorities said.

Eight other Iraqis were killed in a series of small-scale attacks across the country.

Elsewhere, about 300 Iraqi and U.S. troops also raided a clutch of houses along the Tigris River south of Baghdad, arresting two men accused of involvement in an explosives-trafficking ring and five others said to have kidnapped and killed Iraqis and coalition forces.

U.S. commanders said the raid, dubbed Operation Warrior Intercept, might help prevent violence they expect in coming days as insurgents target Shiites celebrating election results.

According to members of the U.S. Congress who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, some of the photos and videos included images of women ordered to expose their breasts.

Ali said he expected U.S. forces to free six of the women in a few days after a government commission reviewing detainee cases recommended they be released due to lack of evidence. U.S. authorities would not comment on his claim.

The official said the six due for release were detained over the past six months by U.S. or Iraqi forces in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Tal Afar and investigations into their cases had been completed. The others were arrested in the last two months and investigations usually take at least three months, he added.

All were detained under the broad charge of "aiding terrorists or planting explosives," he added.

"In my opinion, all of them are innocent," Ali said.

Ali insisted that the planned release of the six women had nothing to do with kidnappers' demands, saying detainees are "arrested and released every day."

"This is not the first time we are requesting the release of prisoners," he said. "This whole brouhaha is because it's being tied to the release of the American journalist. We don't negotiate with terrorists."

Hind al-Salehi, an activist who promotes the rights of female detainees, said many women are arrested to pressure male relatives wanted by the Americans or Iraqis to surrender. Some do, al-Salehi said, although others "would rather sacrifice their wives or daughters and mothers for the sake of that cause."

"They break into a house looking for a suspect. He's out. So they take his wife or sister or mother," she said.

The London-based Arabic language newspaper Al Hayat quoted an unidentified woman who was released from jail two weeks ago as saying she was detained because her husband had been accused of belonging to an insurgent group. Because security forces couldn't find him, the wife was taken, the newspaper said.

Al-Hayat said families of prisoners sometime use "tribal diplomacy" to get their relatives out of jail. The newspaper quoted a former prisoner as saying she was released after her clan threatened the local police commander's tribe.

Ali denied that women detainees were used to pressure their male relatives to surrender, saying that was a tactic used by ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

"This was Saddam's policy," he said. "We're not Saddam."

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military said Saturday a suicide car bomber killed two American Marines a day earlier in the volatile Anbar provincial town of Haqlaniyah, northwest of Baghdad. At least 2,224 U.S. military personnel have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Sunni Arab politicians, meanwhile, said they were ready for talks to join a new government of national unity -- hailed by the United States as a necessary step to curb the Sunni-led insurgency and pave the way for American forces to go home.

A car bomb exploded midday near a crowded market in eastern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding six, according to police. Three policemen were killed and five were injured in a car bombing in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, authorities said.

Eight other Iraqis were killed in a series of small-scale attacks across the country.

Elsewhere, about 300 Iraqi and U.S. troops also raided a clutch of houses along the Tigris River south of Baghdad, arresting two men accused of involvement in an explosives-trafficking ring and five others said to have kidnapped and killed Iraqis and coalition forces.

U.S. commanders said the raid, dubbed Operation Warrior Intercept, might help prevent violence they expect in coming days as insurgents target Shiites celebrating election results.

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