Jan. 28, 2006 — -- The treatment of women has obvious cultural sensitivities in the Middle East -- so new allegations that U.S. troops have been using women as "leverage" against suspected terrorists could stir new trouble.
The practice first came to light through U.S. military documents obtained by the Associated Press in a Freedom of Information Act request. They reveal that on at least two occasions the Army seized and jailed wives of suspected insurgents in an effort to flush them out.
One document, also obtained by ABC News, is a complaint filed by a U.S. intelligence officer whose name has been redacted. The officer complains that on May 9, 2004, he witnessed a U.S. raid team detain a 28-year-old mother who was still nursing her six-month-old baby.
Her husband was the primary target of the raid. And the raiders hoped that she might lead them to him.
In the other case, a commanding officer reportedly urges a military police colonel to tack a note on the door of a suspected insurgent, challenging him to "come get his wife" who is being held in U.S. detention.
In both cases, U.S. authorities say troops were holding the women because they perceived them to be a threat.
Human rights organizations have denounced the practice of detaining insurgent's wives as tantamount to hostage-taking, a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
"It's absolutely unacceptable," said Jumana Mausa of Amnesty International. "You cannot detain people for no purpose other than to try to get to somebody else. It just simply doesn't square with the law."
Insurgents have also complained about the practice. Most recently, the kidnappers of Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, have demanded the release of all female prisoners held by U.S. troops in Iraq.
Last Thursday, the U.S. released five of the 11 female prisoners in American custody here. But U.S. and Iraqi officials insisted the release had no connection whatsoever to the demands of Carroll's kidnappers. Rather, they said, it was part of a routine review board decision.
The five women were being held on the broad charge of "aiding terrorists or planting explosives." Iraqi officials say they were released because the review board found there was insufficient evidence to implicate them.
Despite the outcry, ABC News military analyst Tony Cordesman insisted that the practice of detaining women as leverage against their husbands does not violate the rules of war. To the contrary, he says, it has been a common practice, ever since humans began fighting wars.
Moreover, he says, it is understandable in a war where the enemy does not even wear a uniform.
"These wars are fought in gray areas," he said. "If you're going to fight them at all, you're going to have to resort to using intimidation on occasion."
That said, Cordesman cautioned that there is a significant risk involved. If U.S. troops detain someone who is not connected to the insurgency, they run the risk of offending local sensibilities.
"If you go around arresting the wrong people, you don't catch terrorists, you simply create new ones," he said.