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 US 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 US military confirmed this week that it was holding eight women. However, Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim Ali said a ninth woman was arrested on 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 US-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 US 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 7m-by-4m cell at a US 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 US soldiers at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison first appeared nearly two years ago.
According to members of the US Congress who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, some of the photos and videos included images of women ordered to expose their breasts.
Ali said he expected US forces to free six of the women in a few days after a government commission reviewing detainee cases recommended they be released due to lack of evidence. US authorities would not comment on his claim.
The official said the six due for release were detained over the past six months by US or Iraqi forces in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Tal Afar and investigations into their cases had been completed. The others were arrested in the last two months and investigations usually take at least three months, he added.
All were detained under the broad charge of "aiding terrorists or planting explosives," he added.
"In my opinion, all of them are innocent," Ali said.
Ali insisted that the planned release of the six women had nothing to do with kidnappers' demands, saying detainees are "arrested and released every day."
"This is not the first time we are requesting the release of prisoners," he said. "This whole brouhaha is because it's being tied to the release of the American journalist. We don't negotiate with terrorists."
Hind al-Salehi, an activist who promotes the rights of female detainees, said many women are arrested to pressure male relatives wanted by the Americans or Iraqis to surrender. Some do, al-Salehi said, although others "would rather sacrifice their wives or daughters and mothers for the sake of that cause."
"They break into a house looking for a suspect. He's out. So they take his wife or sister or mother," she said.
The London-based Arabic language newspaper Al Hayat quoted an unidentified woman who was released from jail two weeks ago as saying she was detained because her husband had been accused of belonging to an insurgent group. Because security forces couldn't find him, the wife was taken, the newspaper said.