By: PAUL GARWOOD, Associated Press Writer
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, where men sometimes kill female relatives who have been raped because of “shame” brought to the family.
The U.S. military has tried to ease cultural sensitivities by ordering male troops not to touch Iraqi women and using female soldiers to 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.
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.
Meanwhile, U.S. negotiators were working around the clock to secure the release of Carroll.
Her father on Friday pleaded with her captors to spare her life “for the betterment of your cause.” As the kidnappers’ Friday deadline passed with no word, Jim Carroll told Al-Arabiya, an Arab television station, that his 28-year-old daughter is an “innocent person” whose death would do little toward achieving their demand that all female Iraqi detainees be released.
“As a father, I appeal to you to release my daughter for the betterment of your cause,” Carroll said. “Allow her to be your voice to the world. Her life as a reporter will better serve your purpose than her death.”
Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, was abducted on Jan. 7 on her way to interview Adnan al-Dulaimi, a major Sunni Arab political figure. Her translator was killed during the abduction but her driver escaped.
Carroll’s father appeared on two major Arab television stations making his plea. Her mother, Mary Beth Carroll, appeared on CNN on Thursday pleading with kidnappers “to release this young woman who has worked so hard to show the sufferings of Iraqis to the world.”
David Cook, Washington bureau chief for the Monitor, said Friday that officials at the paper were exhausting all avenues seeking her release. In a brief telephone interview, he said though the kidnappers had set a Friday deadline, “the exact timetable or timeline of the kidnappers is unclear.”
Cook, who has urged her kidnappers to contact the Monitor directly, said the newspaper has had no contact with abductors.
“We would welcome communication, as would the family,” he said.
Muslims from Baghdad to Paris urged the militants to free the 28-year-old woman and end Iraq’s wave of kidnappings. More than 240 foreigners have been taken captive and at least 39 killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Carroll was seized in a rough Baghdad neighborhood on Jan. 7 by gunmen who killed her translator. The Sunni Arab politician she had gone to interview urged her release and demanded that U.S. forces stop detaining Iraqi women.
“This act has hurt me and makes me sad because the journalist was trying to meet me when she was kidnapped,” Adnan al-Dulaimi said Friday. “I call upon the kidnappers to immediately release this reporter who came here to cover Iraq’s news and defend our rights.”
A videotape sent by Carroll’s kidnappers, a group calling itself “The Revenge Brigade,” was aired Tuesday by the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, which said her captors threatened to kill her unless U.S. forces freed all Iraqi women in military custody within 72 hours.
No hour was specified, and there was no indication if any prisoners had been released. But the U.S. military confirmed Friday that it has nine Iraqi women in its detention facilities on suspicion of terror-related activities.
“We don’t comment on whether Iraqi female or male detainees are in the process of being released,” U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said. “Of course we understand the cultural sensitivities in detaining females and pay particular attention to assessing their files.”
Iraq’s deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim Ali, visited the women Friday and said six of them– three from Baghdad, and one each from Mosul, Kirkuk and Tal Afar–would be freed next week.
“There’s no link between the government’s request for their release and the kidnapped American journalist,” said Ali, who saw the detainees at a U.S. facility near Baghdad International Airport.
“But I hope that their release will lead to her (Carroll’s) release.”
Carroll grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and graduated from the University of Massachusetts. She worked as a reporting assistant for The Wall Street Journal before moving to Jordan and launching her freelance career in 2002, learning Arabic along the way. Most recently, she was working for The Christian Science Monitor.
A U.S. official said little has been heard from the kidnappers since two roughly 20-second portions of the videotape were aired Tuesday and Thursday. They showed Carroll sitting in a house, surrounded by three armed, masked men.
A Baghdad-based team of U.S. hostage situation specialists, including FBI agents, diplomats and military personnel, has been following multiple leads in the hunt for Carroll, a U.S. Embassy official said. They were meeting with prominent Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arab politicians who may know the kidnappers, the official said.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said he was unaware of any contacts between the high-level hostage release team and Carroll’s kidnappers.
Iraqi kidnappers have often given deadlines or ultimatums only to ignore them and keep holding captives. Kidnappers of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, seized in Baghdad in February 2005, initially gave Italy 72 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The Italians did not comply, but Sgrena was released a month later.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Iraqis have been abducted either by insurgents or gangs seeking ransoms.
According to figures compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, there was an average of two kidnappings a day of Iraqis in Baghdad in January 2004 and 10 a day in December of that year. Last month, the think tank said kidnappings of Iraqis averaged 30 a day nationwide.
French Muslim leaders and former hostages gathered in the Grand Mosque of Paris Friday to appeal for Carroll’s release and urge the U.S. government to negotiate with her kidnappers.
“It is deeply revolting that an innocent life is threatened,” said Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grand Mosque of Paris and president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
A delegation from the Council on American-Islamic Relations flew to Jordan and planned to come to Baghdad to try to secure Carroll’s release.
A spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an Iraqi Sunni clerical group that has contacts with some insurgent groups, said it could do little because it did not know who was holding the reporter.
Foreign diplomats have often sought help from the association in previous abductions, although it has never advocated kidnappings nor acknowledged playing any role in securing releases.
“We plead with the kidnappers of the American female journalist and all kidnappers to release any hostages they are holding who are not part of the occupation,” Sheik Mahmoud Al-Sumaidy said after a sermon at the Sunni Um al-Quraa mosque in Baghdad.