BAQUBAH, IRAQ — From the jail cell she was sharing with her mother, sister and 1-year-old son, the young widow watched with a sardonic expression as the boy weaved unsteadily toward a visiting American soldier and lifted his arms to be carried.
"Aboud," she called out to the toddler, "tell them to release me."
The police say the matriarch, Ikran, used her two daughters, Asma and Ilaf, to recruit their girlfriends to blow themselves up in the name of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Even though the women were terrified of the masked men who took over their neighborhood, they said they'd never do such a thing -- "Life is a gift from God."
Although it remains far from clear whether the women committed the crimes of which they were accused, the tale they shared from their barren cell offers a peek into the violent and claustrophobic world in which women are groomed to become suicide bombers.
As violence levels have plunged across Iraq, the number of attacks carried out by female suicide bombers has increased -- a potent threat that is especially difficult to counter. The gowns favored by devout Muslim women easily conceal explosives, and it is culturally unacceptable for the men who make up the bulk of the Iraqi security forces to frisk them.
Although such attacks are not new to Iraq, they were relatively rare until last year, when eight female bombers struck. This year, the number has jumped to 30, according to U.S. military records. In one particularly bloody day late last month, four women blew themselves up in Baghdad and in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least 44 people.
More women have carried out suicide bombings here in Diyala province than anywhere else in Iraq -- 15 this year alone. Iraqi commanders believe the Sunni Arab insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq has established networks in the province designed specifically to recruit women.
The ethnically and religiously mixed province east of Baghdad has long been a center of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed alliances here with Sunni tribesmen and nationalist political groups against Shiite militants. This is a world in which few women are educated, loyalty to family and tribe are paramount, and fear permeates relations with outsiders.
Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders, known as emirs, managed to recruit entire clans to their cause by marrying into the families here. The women forced into these marriages are often passed around among emirs, said Saja Quadouri, who sits on the provincial council's security committee and is its only female member.
"They will get married to more than one man and get pregnant without knowing who the father is," she said. "Eventually, due to despair, hopelessness and fear, they get exploited to commit such crimes, as they become unwanted by society."
Other women are persuaded to perform a suicide mission to avenge the loss of a father, husband or brother, said a U.S. intelligence analyst, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. In tribal societies, the loss of male relatives typically leaves women without protection or means of survival.
Asma's marriage collapsed shortly before her husband died in a shootout; she says she does not know who killed him. Her father has spent the last three years in a U.S. detention facility on terrorism charges.
Squatting on a bed mat, Ikran, 50, described how the masked gunmen took over their neighborhood on the west side of Baqubah shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime in 2003. She asked that the family be identified by their first names only, to avoid shaming the tribe.
"People say they were displaced families from other neighborhoods who came to our area and tried to control it," said Ikran, a formidable woman in a somber black robe and green head scarf. "The first thing they did was kill several people and leave the bodies in the traffic circle, so everyone would see."
The militants cruised the neighborhood in search of young men to stand at checkpoints and turned up at schools, where they provided instruction at gunpoint on their extreme interpretation of Islam.
"They told the whole school that we must cover our faces and . . . wear gloves," said Ikran's younger daughter, Ilaf. The pretty teen with henna-tinted fingernails said she dropped out of class because she was terrified by their frequent visits. Just 15, she is engaged to marry a neighbor's son.
In the womb-like safety of the cell, Ikran scoffed at the militants' strictures and lit up a cigarette, which they would have regarded as sacrilege. But she said she never dared cross the militants in public.
"We were afraid of them," Ikran said. "Sometimes they would ask us, 'Are we good?' Of course we said yes. Otherwise we would have been killed."
When U.S. forces arrested Ikran's husband, Dawoud, on terrorism charges three years ago, she said the family retreated behind closed doors and rarely ventured outside their home.
"We can't think why anyone would accuse us," she said. "Iraqis will do anything for money."