Looking for suicide bombers in Iraq is no easy task

Asmaa, 27, holds her one-year-old child who was detained with her more than two weeks ago as she begs Brig. Gen. Abdel Kareem Khalaf to release her.
Asmaa, 27, holds her one-year-old child who was detained with her more than two weeks ago as she begs Brig. Gen. Abdel Kareem Khalaf to release her. Leila Fadel / MCT

BAQOUBA, Iraq — The Iraqi National Police came in the middle of the night and roused the three women from their sleep.

For 14 days, they were held, suspected of preparing to carry out deadly suicide attacks and recruit other women to do the same. On Thursday, they were sent home.

Were they future bombers? Maybe. Maybe not.

The three were among 22 women who were detained during an ongoing security operation in Diyala province for alleged links to the al Qaida in Iraq group, which dominated this mostly Sunni Muslim area for years.

In Diyala, women are feared now. In the last eight months, 12 have blown themselves up in suicide attacks. Police are working to ferret out such bombers.

That's how they happened upon Ikram, 50, and her daughters, Asmaa, 27, and Ilaf, 15. The men in their family had been linked to al Qaida in Iraq and an informant said they were terrorists. Police said they'd found papers implicating Ikram in recruiting and suggesting that her daughters were future bombers.

On Wednesday, a reporter watched as they were gently questioned by Brig. Gen. Abdel Kareem Khalaf, the national police commander who's helping to oversee a security drive aimed at driving out the vestiges of al Qaida in Iraq. They asked that their full names not be used. Their detention would shame their families, they said.

They said that the charges against them were false. Ikram said the paper that the police cited as evidence against her was a receipt for a visit she'd made to Camp Bucca, the U.S. detention center in southern Iraq where her husband's been imprisoned for three years.

Ikram said they'd never supported suicide bombings. "If a woman does it we curse her," she said.

Khalaf interrupted. He told her the papers confiscated from outside her home weren't notifications of visits to Bucca. They were proof of her connection to the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida-affiliated group that once held sway in much of Diyala.

Khalaf then starting reading from a letter:

"To the sincere believer sister:

"Iraq Islamic State is blessing the actions that you are conducting through the blessed instructions from Emir Abu Dawod as the state suffers from the crusade by apostates and unbelievers who sold their religion for dinars. We swear to God that this will not end peacefully for them and they will get nothing from us but beheadings," he read.

"Sir, I don't know how to read and write," she interrupted.

Khalaf cut her off. "This is addressed to Umm Omar," he said. "Aren't you Umm Omar?"

"There are hundreds of Umm Omars," she said, referring to the nickname that means "mother of Omar." In Iraq it's a sign of respect to call someone the mother of her oldest son.

The letter was found with fliers wedged into the space on top of an outdoor bathroom at her home, Khalaf said.

Khalaf looked to Asmaa. Police also had found a letter she'd written to her father in Bucca. In it she referred to the deaths of her brothers Ali and Omar. One died in a car accident, and the other had been killed — by whom, they said they didn't know.

"I miss my brothers, sisters and mother sitting together for lunch," the letter said. "But even if you return to the same setting it is impossible to return to the way it was. Nothing will bring us together like eternal life."

"Do you want to be a martyr?" Khalaf asked. Police said that Asmaa's husband had been shot in Diyala while fighting with al Qaida in Iraq.

She looked up, her eyes wide and her pale face framed by a floral scarf. Her son sat in his grandmother's lap, smiling. His clothes were soiled. He'd been in jail with them, and they'd run out of diapers.

"How could I? I have a child," Asmaa said. She pleaded to be released.

Ilaf, the younger sister, began to weep. She said she'd dropped out of school when al Qaida in Iraq began to force young girls to cover their faces and threaten them for the slightest hint of makeup.

Khalaf asked why the Americans had detained her father. They say he is a terrorist, he added.

"The Americans say everyone they capture is a terrorist," Ilaf shouted.

Khalaf acknowledged that the evidence was scant. No explosives were found in the house, no residue on their hands. A list of women and their phone numbers could be a list of friends just as easily as a recruiter's manifest of possible bombers.

The family could be deeply involved in recruiting suicide bombers. Or they could be three women living alone in a neighborhood that al Qaida in Iraq once completely controlled.

Maybe someone with a grudge put them on a list and told security forces that they were bad.

Everything is just a maybe. More than 400 people have been detained since the security operation began, Khalaf said.

He ordered in lunch. The officers whispered to one another when Asmaa wouldn't eat. This was a sign that she might be al Qaida.

"I swear it isn't," she said. "I'm too frightened to eat. If you want me to show you I'm not al Qaida I'll eat all of these dishes."

She picked up a spoon and a tear fell from her face to the plate.

Khalaf looked through the papers again. He called in the officer who'd headed the raid.

"I have a secret source that says she is involved with al Qaida," the officer said.

"Bring your source and we'll go to the judge," Khalaf said.

That night the judge found that there wasn't enough evidence.

On Thursday they went home. The officer who'd led the raid is under investigation, Khalaf said.

Future suicide bombers?

Maybe. Maybe not.

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