BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S. Army has been detaining Iraqi women to help track down husbands or fathers who are suspected terrorists, according to documents released Friday and a Knight Ridder interview with a female detainee who was released Thursday after four months in prison.
A series of e-mails written by American soldiers and an internal Army memo, which were released Friday in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, describe two cases of women who were imprisoned because American officials wanted information about their husbands.
The Iraqi woman told Knight Ridder on Friday that she and eight other female detainees in her cell had often talked among themselves. She discovered that all of them were being held because U.S. officials had suspected their male relatives of having ties to terrorism. In some cases, men in their families were killed during U.S. raids, the woman alleged.
The woman, whose voice trembled as she told her story, said she didn't want to be named because she feared that she or a member of her family would be arrested.
American officials declined to discuss specific cases, including whether the women were held solely because U.S. forces suspected that male relatives were terrorists. But Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said Friday that the American military held only people who were considered threats.
"We recognize insurgents don't work alone. They work in groups. Questioning certainly focuses on who they are associated with," Johnson said. "If we believe they have information or an association with terrorist activity, we would make a determination about exactly what that role may be."
The woman told Knight Ridder that she was visiting a relative in southwest Baghdad four months ago when multinational forces raided the home. Her relative's husband was killed, she said, and she and her husband were detained.
She said she was held with eight other women in a small room at Baghdad International Airport.
"We were talking about the charges against each of us," she said. "It turned out to be all the same. We were taken because they suspected our husbands or fathers of being terrorists."
She said she was cut off from her family during her capture and that she didn't see or hear from her husband until he, too, was released Thursday.
She said that during the first 12 days of her imprisonment, interrogators questioned her extensively but also offered her tea and juice.
"I was treated in a good way, no torture," she said.
The U.S. detention of female prisoners is a sensitive issue for the Iraqi populace, which considers the mistreatment of a woman a dishonor to her family. Iraqis find it particularly offensive that foreign male officers are holding female prisoners, as many Iraqis fear that American soldiers will treat them disrespectfully.
Several terrorist groups that are holding hostages—inducing the one that claims responsibility for kidnapping American journalist Jill Carroll —have demanded the release of female prisoners.
American and Iraqi officials have said that the decision to release five women Thursday wasn't related to Carroll's kidnapping but was the result of a routine review of detainee cases.
U.S. officials said that after the release of the five, four of the 14,000 prisoners they were holding were female. The Iraqi Justice Ministry said Friday that six women remain in custody.
In a memo written in June 2004 and released Friday, an officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, whose name was redacted, described the arrest of a 28-year-old woman from Tamiya, northwest of Baghdad. She had three young children, including one who was nursing.
U.S. forces raided her in-laws' home, calling her husband the "primary target." Before the raid, soldiers had decided that if the woman were at the in-laws' home, they'd detain her "in order to leverage the primary target's surrender," the memo's author wrote.
"During my initial screening of the occupants at the target house, I determined that the wife could provide no actionable intelligence leading to the arrest of her husband," the author of the memo wrote. "Despite my protest, the raid team leader detained her anyway."
The woman was released two days later, the memo said.
In the 2004 e-mail exchange, what appear to be American soldiers based in northern Iraq discuss the detention of Kurdish female prisoners. The names were redacted.
In an e-mail dated June 17, 2004, a U.S. soldier wrote: "What are you guys doing to try to get the husband—have you tacked a note on the door and challenged him to come get his wife?"
A soldier wrote two days later that he was getting more information from "these gals" that could "result in getting husband."
The e-mails and the memo were among hundreds of documents that the Pentagon released under a federal court order to meet an American Civil Liberties Union request for information on detention practices.
Busho Ibrahim, the administrative deputy in the Iraqi Justice Ministry, said the five women who were released Thursday and the ones who were still in custody were detained on suspicion of having ties to terrorism. One of them is from Tal Afar near the Syrian border, another is from Kirkuk and the rest are from Baghdad, Ibrahim said. All five who were released Thursday were from Baghdad, he said.
Johnson said the U.S. military recognized the Arab sensitivity to women and tried to adjudicate their cases faster.
Detainees can bring allegations of abuse or wrongdoing to Iraqi and multinational forces during questioning and "an appropriate investigation would be opened," he said.
He said that during raids, both suspected insurgents and coalition forces have been killed.
Officials arrest detainees based on intelligence and information gathered from the raids. The detainees then are questioned to determine whether they have ties to insurgents. If it's thought that they might, their files are taken before a panel of Iraqi and American officials for review.
If the panel determines eventually that the detainee isn't a threat, as it did in the cases of the five women, that person is released, Johnson said. If not, the detainee's case is reviewed every six months. The process is in accordance with the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners, he said.
Ibrahim and members of the Sunni Muslim-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party said Friday that they didn't think the women were tortured. Omar al-Jubouri, a member of the party's Human Rights Section, said female prisoners now were allowed weekly visits with their families.
Party members said they'd been negotiating with U.S. officials to get female prisoners released.
Ibrahim said he'd discussed the matter with the American military and that he thought the remaining female prisoners would be released soon.
(Special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.