The U.S. military said Wednesday that two women used as suicide bombers in attacks earlier this month had undergone psychiatric treatment but there is no indication they had Down syndrome as Iraqi and U.S. officials initially had claimed.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a military spokesman, said the women used in the Feb. 1 pet market bombings had been identified as residents from the northeastern outskirts of Baghdad who were in their late 20s or early 30s.
The two attacks killed nearly 100 people, and Iraqi and U.S. officials said at the time the women appeared to be unwitting attackers.
Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, the chief Iraqi military commander in Baghdad, said soon after the attacks that photos of the women's heads showed they had Down syndrome, but he did not offer any other proof.
A U.S. military spokesman for the Baghdad area, Lt. Col. Steve Stover, also said at the time that medical experts with his division had examined the photos and agreed the women probably suffered from the genetic disorder. "They were both females and they both looked like they had Down syndrome," Stover said on Feb. 2.
A cell phone image of one of the heads viewed by The Associated Press was inconclusive.
There was speculation that the heads could have been distorted by the blast, leading police initially to believe they had Down syndrome.
On Wednesday, Smith backed away from the claim about Down syndrome while responding to a question concerning the psychiatric histories of the two bombers.
"Both had recently received psychiatric treatment for depression and/or schizophrenia. From what we know now there's no indication that they had Down syndrome," Smith said, citing records obtained by the military.
Smith also said one of the women was married but that neither had criminal backgrounds. He said it was not clear how they were linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, which the military has said was behind the bombing.
Attacks 'brutal and bankrupt'
The director of the Ibn-Rushd psychiatric teaching hospital in central Baghdad, Dr. Shalan al-Abboudi, said that one of the pet market bombers, a 36-year-old married woman, had been treated there for schizophrenia and depression, according to her file. Refusing to identify her, he said she received electric shock therapy and was released into the custody of an aunt.
Smith did not address other details of the bombings. Iraqi officials have said the explosives were detonated by remote-control, presumably because people with Down syndrome could not be relied upon to set off the bombs.
The U.S. military and the Iraqi government have claimed that Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq are increasingly trying to use Iraq's most vulnerable populations as suicide bombers to avoid raising suspicions or being searched at checkpoints that guard access to many markets, neighborhoods and bridges in the capital.
The pet market attacks led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call al-Qaida in Iraq "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements."
On Tuesday, the Iraqi Interior Ministry ordered police to begin rounding up beggars, homeless and mentally disabled people from the streets of Baghdad and other cities to prevent insurgents from using them as bombers.
The people detained in the Baghdad sweep will be handed over to social welfare institutions and psychiatric hospitals that can provide shelter and care for them, according to the ministry.
It is not clear, however, that such people would be safe in psychiatric hospitals. American and Iraqi troops recently detained the acting director of the al-Rashad psychiatric hospital in eastern Baghdad on suspicion of helping supply patient information to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Police in central Baghdad detained eight beggars, three women and five men Wednesday, but they found few other street people a day after the campaign was announced, an officer said.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said a joint committee of police and social welfare officials will decide what to do with those taken into custody. Those considered beggars could be allowed to go home with relatives after signing a written pledge promising not to pander in the future, the officer said.