BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Rania is only 15-years old, but in the past week the softly spoken Iraqi girl has been drugged, strapped with explosives, arrested by men she nearly blew up and then shoved into a detention centre.
Now she finds herself at the heart of a propaganda war being waged by the Iraqi security forces against the same al Qaeda militants who tried to use her as a remote-controlled bomb.
Police arrested the teenage Iraqi girl on Sunday in Iraq’s violent Diyala province, where the Sunni Arab militants are waging a bitter campaign against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
She was caught with a vest packed with explosives by a local neighborhood patrol in the provincial capital, Baquba. Initial reports said she had turned herself in, although police later said she was searched and they found the vest.
She cannot have been very willing to go through with it in any case or she would have detonated herself at the checkpoint, as many suicide bombers do when they are rumbled by security, police sources told Reuters.
U.S. military officials described her as an “unwilling” suicide bomber, as did the girl herself in a television interview for an Iraqi station obtained by Reuters.
Rania’s ordeal is far from over.
Wise to the potential publicity goldmine she could be as a poster-girl for al Qaeda’s callous tactics, police have paraded her on television and invited journalists to interview her, the first time they have been allowed access to a detainee.
Her interview was filmed under the scrutiny of prison officials after she had already been a captive for days. It was impossible to tell how much of it was her own story or coerced.
If Rania is to be believed, her profile matches that of other female suicide bombers in Iraq. Her father and brother both disappeared in 2006, she says, at the height of Iraq’s vicious sectarian conflict. Their bodies turned up weeks later.
“My father disappeared and my mother found his body in the morgue; they dumped my brother’s body in the river,” she said, as she sat on her cell bed, wrapped in a long black cloak.
Analysts say many female suicide bombers are motivated by a thirst for revenge for family members killed. But Rania says she never wanted to be a martyr. Then, staring blankly into the distance, she recounts how she was nearly blown to pieces.
“My husband took me to see some of his relatives I’d not seen before. I stayed the night. ... Then, in the morning, they brought me breakfast with apricot juice. It tasted funny, so I asked what was in it. They told me ‘nothing, just drink’.”
Police said when they arrested her, she seemed drugged by a sedative, though it was not clear.
“I was feeling dizzy and sick for days,” she says.
After breakfast, an older woman who claimed to be a cousin of her husband started to put the vest on her, Rania said. She protested, but they told her not to worry. She must just go to a busy local market, where they would meet her. She was suspicious but they were older and very persuasive.
Her husband was in another room. Rania did as she was told.
Before she left the house, her husband reappeared by the door. He stopped her and asked her: “If we meet in the next life, will you choose me or another man.” She was unnerved by the question, but she joked: “I’d choose another man.”
She hasn’t seen him since.
Rania never got to the market. At a security checkpoint, a local Sunni Arab neighborhood patrol was suspicious of her long robe and searched her, finding wires then the explosive vest.
“I never intended to blow myself up. When stopped at the checkpoint, I wanted to turn myself in, but I was afraid,” she says. “Nobody told me how to use this vest. I don’t know if they meant to blow me up by remote control. I just don’t know.”
Her capture — or rescue — is clearly a victory for U.S. and Iraqi security forces in the propaganda war. It has shown an al Qaeda that looks vulnerable, less competent and increasingly resorting to desperate tactics. Police are seeking her husband.
“The fact he’s not shown up to help me yet shows he must have something to hide,” she says.
Editing by Andrew Marshall and Mary Gabriel