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We continue today with our series the Hidden World of Girls: Girls and the Women They Become. Our series is produced with the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. Today, we meet the wives of militants in Iraq. Those are the women who have given the insurgents food, shelter and children. Now that many militants - including those who are part of al-Qaida - have been caught or killed, it's the women who are left behind.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has their story.

KELLY MCEVERS: At first, Um Salah is leery.

UM SALAH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Twenty-one years old and stubborn, she comes from a traditional village in Diyala province, a former al-Qaida stronghold about an hour north of Baghdad. She won't give us her full name.

When we ask about her husband, she only says this.

UM SALAH: (Through translator) He was a good guy, and actually, no one would criticize him for anything. He was a good man.

MCEVERS: But we know different. We know Um Salah's husband was a high-ranking member of the Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of al-Qaida. We also know he was accused of helping kill Um Salah's father, and that he was handed over to authorities by her own brother.

UM SALAH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Eventually, Um Salah admits that her husband was part of what she calls the resistance. She shows us a record of her marriage. It was performed by a religious cleric.

It's on a piece of notebook paper. Does it have a date, did he sign it?

Unidentified Woman #1 (Translator): Not signed, no date, nothing.

MCEVERS: What this means is Um Salah is not legally married, and that her two-and-a-half-year-old boy, Salah, is not registered with the government. No registration means no food ration card, no right to visit the hospital, no school.

Um Salah says that with her husband now in jail and accused of being a terrorist, she has no money and no hope. While she talks, Salah hangs on her shoulder.

UM SALAH: (Through translator) Sometimes, you know, when she is so much fed up with her situation, she would just pray for God: God, take my life. I mean, okay. I mean, let me die with my son, now.

MCEVERS: Aid groups say there are more than a hundred women like Um Salah in Diyala Province alone. With that in mind, the Iraqi government recently launched an anti-al-Qaida media campaign.

(Soundbite of a video)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: A video showed authorities digging through a bomb-making factory, and it urged women not to marry insurgents. Marry a terrorist, and your children will have no rights, the campaign goes. Marry a terrorist, and you'll be shunned by society.

The program, broadcast on state TV, featured two women who said they were forced to marry foreign fighters.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This woman says her uncle arranged a marriage with a Palestinian-born militant from Syria. The man was later killed in a raid by Iraqi troops.

About 20 women who once were married to militants have recently been detained. Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammad al-Askari says he finds it hard to believe that any of them are totally innocent.

Mr. MOHAMMAD AL-ASKARI (Spokesman, Ministry of Defense): (Through translator) My personal opinion - and, of course, this is my personal opinion only - is that if you live with someone for sure, even if you don't know what he's doing, but you know his reactions, his mentality, his ideology, the way he reacts. So you should be knowing something about him, even as a woman living with him in one place.

Um Mohammad agrees. She's also from Diyala province, and she was also married to an insurgent. She says the people in her village willingly joined the insurgency because fighters promised to rid Iraq of the American invaders.

Ms. UM MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) Those guys, you know, had a very sweet talk. They were all pious people who prayed and fasted.

MCEVERS: Um Mohammad says the women naturally helped these men, who they saw as holy.

Ms. MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) They would hide men. When the men wanted to move, they would disguise them in women's clothes and help them. And, you know, if someone would come and ask about, where is he? They'd say, oh, we don't know, while he is hiding in her house.

MCEVERS: What the government is not doing is providing any kind of social services to the women like Um Mohammad who have been left behind - whether they're guilty of collaborating with the insurgency or not.

In a country with millions of orphans and widows, officials say it's tough to make a priority out of women who are seen as criminals, which means they're basically ignored by everyone, says Hanaa Edwar, who heads a local women's rights group.

Ms. HANAA EDWAR (Founder-Secretary-General, Iraqi al-Amal Association): They are not recognized, you know, in respecting their dignity. I mean that they miss their housing, they miss health protections. They miss education.

MCEVERS: Edwar says the only way out for most of these women is to marry again.

Rawaa Ismael is from Anbar province, another former al-Qaida stronghold. One day, insurgents showed up at her house and forced her to marry one of them.

Ms. RAWAA ISMAEL: (Through translator) We didn't have, like, a bedroom, a real bedroom. They just put me in the room, and I was raped, in the real sense of the word.

MCEVERS: After that, Rawaa and her mother fled. They were considering going to a women's shelter, but they were afraid that militants would come after them.

Ms. ISMAEL: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Since then, they've been moving from house to house, relative to relative. Even their own people are ashamed of them.

Now Rawaa is staying with her sister, who is married. At least now, she says, there's a man in the house to take care of her.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: Isra' al Rubei'i contributed to this story in our series.

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