Thursday, July 29, 2004

Wondering what happened to Iraq's Womens Army ...

I found this photo on the net before the bombing of Bagdad and had been wondering ever since, what happened to these women when finally I stumbled across the following article, which i edited down for simplicity.

Thursday, July 29, 2004, By Hannah Allam, Knight Ridder Newspapers

Women fighters among Mahdi Army militia signal cleric building military might

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Umm Muhammad's green eyes flashed one day last week as she listened to the imam at a rundown Baghdad mosque preach about how women should be silent and unseen, traveling only "from the home to the grave."

She knew the edict didn't apply to her; the same imam had blessed her before battle when she became one of the first female commanders in rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

"Even my husband didn't know I was fighting, or he pretended not to know," Umm Muhammad, 34, said. "He tells me, `One day you're going to go and never come back.' I tell him I dream of martyrdom."

The presence of women in the ranks of al Sadr's militia is another troubling sign that al Sadr, who has said he's considering forming a political party, is building his military capability. ... Now, with a cease-fire and a government ban on militias in place, al Sadr's Mahdi Army is relying more on women like Umm Muhammad - smart, covert and willing to die - to transport guns and gather intelligence... At least 150 women in the Mahdi Army are being trained as suicide bombers, weapons experts and intelligence agents... Women fought alongside men during al Sadr's uprising against U.S. forces in April, and at least two female guerrillas died in combat. Their funeral banners proclaimed them "shaheeda," the feminine form of the Arabic word for martyr.

Sabriya Beqal, a 50-year-old mother of eight, was killed by U.S. fire last month as she was bringing water to the Mahdi Army fighters camped out in her courtyard, her family said. Her sons and other militiamen carried her coffin to the cemetery and noted the shock of passersby who overheard that the fallen fighter was a woman.

"No less than 10 Americans will be killed to avenge my mother," said Beqal's 25-year-old son, Ahmed. "She was such an honor for us. All my friends wish their mothers could be martyrs, too. When we're all dead, we know the women will still be there, fighting."

Shiite clerics and militiamen who were once reluctant to embrace female fighters now hail their sacrifices. A popular recruiting video for the Mahdi Army features two veiled women - one wearing a necklace of hand grenades, the other holding an assault rifle with an ammunition belt slung across her black robe... Last week, a newspaper aligned with al Sadr ran a front-page story under the headline, "The Mothers of Mahdi Army." The accompanying photo showed an elderly woman hitching up her robes as she fired a mortar round.

... Umm Muhammad, who's now seven months pregnant, received her own brigade in the early months of her pregnancy and shared the weapons expertise she calls "the only benefit" reaped from Saddam's regime. Saddam made gun training mandatory for women during the Iran-Iraq war. Umm Muhammad - who taught her soldiers how to aim a grenade launcher through a veil - has since earned the nickname "Lightning Bolt" from her impressed comrades for her sharp shooting.

... On a sweltering Friday this month, Umm Muhammad's soldiers offered her kisses instead of salutes. They pushed her toward the only chair in the teeming women's section of the mosque, in deference to her pregnancy.

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