Fri, Feb 15, 2008 - Page 7 News List

US probes hospital link to bombings

EXPLOSIVE The US military said an official at a psychiatric hospital was suspected of providing insurgents with details on mentally disabled women for suicide attacks


When twin blasts ravaged crowded pet markets earlier this month, Iraqi authorities offered a chilling account: Mentally disabled women carried the hidden explosives perhaps as unwitting bombers for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The US military on Wednesday brought another twist to the plot -- that the acting director of a psychiatric hospital could have betrayed his ethics and turned over patient details to insurgents blamed for the attack, which killed nearly 100 people.

The questioning of the hospital administrator fits into a wider campaign to confront insurgents' changing tactics -- such as using women as suicide bombers -- as they seek to bypass stepped-up security measures and bounce back from losses in recent US-led offensives.

But the joint US-Iraqi raids on Sunday on the al-Rashad hospital seek to dig deeper into just one deadly day -- the Feb. 1 bombings and whether a physician entrusted to care for the mentally disabled could have aided al-Qaeda.

Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a military spokesman, said the hospital official was detained "in connection with the possible exploitation of mentally impaired women to al-Qaeda."

It was not immediately clear what direct contact occurred between the detained hospital administrator and the two women who carried the explosives into the crowded outdoor pet markets with cages of birds and other small animals.

A spokesman for US troops in Baghdad, Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Stover, said the hospital official was suspected of providing names and files of patients at the hospital to insurgents -- suggesting the probe could be broader than the attacks earlier this month. He said the hospital director's computer and files were seized in the raid.

Stover declined to speculate on a motive, but said al-Qaeda often uses threats and extortion to gain recruits or assistance. The hospital is located in a mostly Shiite district, and Sunnis dominate the insurgents inspired by al-Qaeda.

The military did not identify the suspect, saying he was still under questioning. But a hospital official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the detainee was Dr Sahi Aboob al-Maliki, who had been on the job for two months after his predecessor was assassinated.

The official said the soldiers were "very preoccupied" with the search of al-Maliki's office.

"It was a surprise for us when they detained him," the official said. "He was a professional doctor and we didn't notice anything strange or abnormal about him."

The Iraqi claim that mentally disabled women were used in the attacks was initially met with skepticism. Iraqi authorities said they based the assertion on photos of the bombers' heads that purportedly showed the women had Down syndrome, and have not offered any other proof.

The US military later backed the Iraqi account of the bombings, which led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call al-Qaeda in Iraq "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements."

Smith said Iraqi and US soldiers conducted a "thorough search" of the hospital in a tree-lined complex in eastern Baghdad.

"The administrator remains in coalition force detention and is being questioned to determine what role, if any, he played in supplying al-Qaeda with information regarding patients at the al-Rashad psychiatric hospital or from other medical facilities in Baghdad," he said.

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