updated 2/19/2008 11:36:35 AM ET 2008-02-19T16:36:35

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has ordered police to round up beggars, vagabonds and mentally disabled people from the streets in Baghdad to prevent them from being used by insurgents as suicide bombers, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The decision came after a series of suicide attacks, including two female bombers who struck pet markets in Baghdad on Feb. 1, killing nearly 100 people. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said the women were mentally disabled and apparently unwitting bombers.

The people detained in the Baghdad sweep will be handed over to governmental institutions that can provide shelter and care for them, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.

"This will be implemented nationwide starting from today," Khalaf told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"Militant groups, like al-Qaida in Iraq, have started exploiting these people in a very bad manner to kill innocents as they do not raise suspicions," Khalaf said. "These groups are either luring those who desperate for money to help them in their attacks or making use of their poor mental condition to use them as suicide bombers."

Khalaf was not more specific about who would be targeted. Police officials at at least two stations in western Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release information to the media, said they had received the orders but had not yet acted on them.

The U.S. military offered no immediate response to Khalaf's comments.

U.S. military backs Iraqi account
The Iraqi claim that mentally disabled women were used in the pet market bombings 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 did not offer any other proof.

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

American and Iraqi troops later detained the acting director of a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of helping supply patient information to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said the suspect was being questioned "in connection with the possible exploitation of mentally impaired women to al-Qaida."

The allegations fit into a wider campaign to confront insurgents' changing tactics _ such as using women or children as suicide bombers _ as they seek to bypass stepped-up security measures and bounce back from losses in recent U.S.-led offensives.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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