BAGHDAD, Iraq—Umm Muhammad's green eyes flashed one day last week as she listened to the imam at a rundown Baghdad mosque preach about how women should be silent and unseen, traveling only "from the home to the grave."
She knew the edict didn't apply to her; the same imam had blessed her before battle when she became one of the first female commanders in rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
"Even my husband didn't know I was fighting, or he pretended not to know," Umm Muhammad, 34, said. "He tells me, `One day you're going to go and never come back.' I tell him I dream of martyrdom."
The presence of women in the ranks of al Sadr's militia is another troubling sign that al Sadr, who has said he's considering forming a political party, is building his military capability. Already, his militia has shown itself to be adaptable—surprising U.S. military commanders with a broad insurrection in April and continuing to flourish in many areas of Baghdad despite a determined U.S. effort to crush it.
Now, with a cease-fire and a government ban on militias in place, al Sadr's Mahdi Army is relying more on women like Umm Muhammad—smart, covert and willing to die—to transport guns and gather intelligence. In traditional flowing garments that are ideal for concealing firearms and allowing them to weave through crowds without raising suspicion, the women are much less likely than black-clad militiamen to draw the attention of American and Iraqi officials.
At least 150 women in the Mahdi Army are being trained as suicide bombers, weapons experts and intelligence agents, according to a dozen female recruits and their male commanders in Baghdad and southern Shiite holy cities. Hundreds of others are sympathizers, marching in black cloaks in a stunning debut in April in the streets of Baghdad like an army of wraiths.
Women fought alongside men during al Sadr's uprising against U.S. forces in April, and at least two female guerrillas died in combat. Their funeral banners proclaimed them "shaheeda," the feminine form of the Arabic word for martyr.
Sabriya Beqal, a 50-year-old mother of eight, was killed by U.S. fire last month as she was bringing water to the Mahdi Army fighters camped out in her courtyard, her family said. Her sons and other militiamen carried her coffin to the cemetery and noted the shock of passersby who overheard that the fallen fighter was a woman.
"No less than 10 Americans will be killed to avenge my mother," said Beqal's 25-year-old son, Ahmed. "She was such an honor for us. All my friends wish their mothers could be martyrs, too. When we're all dead, we know the women will still be there, fighting."
Shiite clerics and militiamen who were once reluctant to embrace female fighters now hail their sacrifices. A popular recruiting video for the Mahdi Army features two veiled women—one wearing a necklace of hand grenades, the other holding an assault rifle with an ammunition belt slung across her black robe.
"We will carry out our martyrdom operations against the pagan American government," one of the women intoned. "We'll make this a second Vietnam. We will fight anyone who dares to harm Muqtada al Sadr."
Last week, a newspaper aligned with al Sadr ran a front-page story under the headline, "The Mothers of Mahdi Army." The accompanying photo showed an elderly woman hitching up her robes as she fired a mortar round.
"We have a women's suicide brigade," said Sheik Hassan Athari, the director of an al Sadr office in Baghdad. "But for now, our female fighters are just on notice until we give orders. They've already declared their loyalty to Iraq with everything they possess, even their lives. When the men see our courageous women holding weapons, they're even more inspired to fight."
Jihad, or holy war, isn't a religious obligation for Muslim women, and many Shiite clerics still frown upon women bearing arms. Women were first excluded from al Sadr's forces, several women said, but eventually they won acceptance by invoking the story of the cleric's aunt, a revered scholar and activist known as Bint al Huda.
When al Sadr's uncle, Mohammed Baqr al Sadr, a Shiite cleric, opponent of Saddam Hussein and al Huda's brother, was placed under house arrest, she stayed by his side, speaking out against Baath Party brutalities. She was executed with her brother in 1980.
The clerics relented and formed a women's wing of the Mahdi Army with units dubbed "Fist of Huda" and "Bint al Huda Brigade." The recruits were mainly the sisters and wives of militiamen from the filthy labyrinth of alleys in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite ghetto in Baghdad. They are an impoverished, street-smart bunch that grew up with the twin burdens of being Shiite under Saddam and women under an often-stifling patriarchy.
When al Sadr launched his uprising against U.S. forces in April, women from Sadr City traveled south to the cities of Najaf and Kufa to help with supplies. They cooked for the men and bandaged wounds, consoled widows and took in orphans.
But many itched for action.
"They were supposed to just deliver the weapons, but they started shooting," recalled a militiaman who goes by the name Abu Muhammad. "Some of them even asked us for explosives belts."
Umm Muhammad, who's now seven months pregnant, received her own brigade in the early months of her pregnancy and shared the weapons expertise she calls "the only benefit" reaped from Saddam's regime. Saddam made gun training mandatory for women during the Iran-Iraq war. Umm Muhammad—who taught her soldiers how to aim a grenade launcher through a veil—has since earned the nickname "Lightning Bolt" from her impressed comrades for her sharp shooting.
She and other women from the Bint al Huda Brigade formed a human shield when armored U.S. vehicles rolled into Sadr City to demolish al Sadr's office. After the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, her brigade sent letters through intermediaries to the U.S. military demanding the release of all female prisoners. They turned their homes into arsenals and safe houses for rebels. Some even claimed they joined the fighting by dressing as men.
Because of the fragile cease-fire between the Mahdi Army and U.S. military, Umm Muhammad's platoon stopped combat operations and turned to intelligence work and checkpoint duty at the main mosque in Sadr City.
On a sweltering Friday this month, Umm Muhammad's soldiers offered her kisses instead of salutes. They pushed her toward the only chair in the teeming women's section of the mosque, in deference to her pregnancy.
The women soaked their veils in ice water to keep their faces cool as they searched female worshipers at the mosque. They tied green satin bands around their heads to signal their membership in the Mahdi Army. They proudly displayed their plastic credentials stamped with al Sadr's menacing mug.
Umm Muhammad watched in silence as her brigade confiscated cell phones and riffled through purses for contraband. Young women rushed to give her cups of water and ask about her pregnancy. Umm Muhammad smiled and pulled her robe close to reveal the bulge in her stomach.
"If it's a boy, I'll name him Muqtada," she said. "But I'm hoping for a girl, so I can train her myself."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+women