BAGHDAD // Dozens of children born to al Qa'eda fighters in Iraq have been abducted by their fathers, prompting fears they will be brought up abroad as the next generation of Islamist militants.
Iraqi women who were forced to marry foreign al Qa'eda volunteers have reported infant boys being snatched away by their husbands and never heard from again. An Iraqi charity working to support the al Qa'eda wives, many of whom were effectively presented as gifts to the militants, said the abductions posed a grave and long-term danger to Iraq and other countries.
"We have reports that many of these children are disappearing and that al Qa'eda wants to bring them up as a new generation that will be indoctrinated from birth and will be extremely loyal to its cause," said Jamil Dawar, an official with Noor, a non-governmental organisation that provides help to hundreds of women who were married off to foreign militants. "I believe that is al Qa'eda's purpose, and it is a huge problem. It is not just a problem for these children and their mothers. It is a problem for Iraq, and the entire international community. Something must be done."
Dr Dawar said his organisation did not have exact figures for the number of abducted children, but its research and interviews with al Qa'eda wives indicated that at least 50 infant boys had gone missing with their fathers. "It is always boys. Girls are never taken," he said. One of the women being helped by Noor is Jahida Mohammad, 41, who was forced to marry a Saudi militant in 2004 and gave birth to twin boys a year later.
"At the time my whole region was supporting al Qa'eda and I was forced by my family to marry that Saudi," said Mrs Mohammad, from the Baghdadi region of Anbar province.
Mrs Mohammad said her husband spent little time at home, but in 2007 he came to their house, took the two-year-old boys and left. She has neither seen nor heard from them since.
"He was always talking about the boys being for al Qa'eda; he said they were not for us but for al Qa'eda," she said. "When they disappeared, I knew he had taken them for that. He wants to raise them for that purpose; he was fascinated with the idea."
Mrs Mohammad said the broken marriage and disappearance of her sons had left her heartbroken, destitute and ostracised from her community.
"I was just married to make children for al Qa'eda," she said.
The children who have been taken by their fathers are thought to have returned to their countries of origin, although there is no record of where they are. Some may have stayed in Iraq, where al Qa'eda continues to have a presence, although most al Qa'eda militants here now are believed to be Iraqis, not foreigners.
The problem began when militants arrived in Iraq from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere to fight US forces after the 2003 US-led invasion. Loosely collected under the al Qa'eda banner, hundreds of the fighters were taken in by Iraqi insurgent factions, principally in the Sunni heartlands of Anbar, Mosul and Diyala.
As a fringe benefit for answering the call to arms, a wife and a home were often granted to them. Given Iraq's tribal traditions, the women for whom the marriages were arranged had little choice but to wed. As the war dragged on, scores of the foreign al Qa'eda fighters were killed or captured, leaving behind their widows and, in numerous instances, children.
These al Qa'eda wives and offspring are now social outcasts in Iraq. The women are considered prostitutes and the children are illegitimate, with no legal rights because the marriages were never authorised under Iraqi civil law. The government has made no move to recognise their citizenship because it abhors anyone and anything connected to al Qa'eda.
Noor, an organisation founded last year, has registered more than 250 women and 400 children and believes many more al Qa'eda wives remain unregistered. It lobbies the government on their behalf, arguing the women and children are victims of al Qa'eda and should be given legal rights and assistance.
"It's a real social problem," Dr Dawar said. "Who will look after these children and these women? What will happen to them if they are given no rights?"