AMMAN, Jordan – American forces last year detained and later released an Iraqi with a name that matched one of three homicide bombers who struck Amman hotels, killing 57 people, the U.S. military said Monday.
The announcement came a day after the televised confession of an Iraqi woman — accused of being the fourth would-be attacker — set Jordanians buzzing Monday, with some expressing joy over her capture and others venting anger over her deadly plans.
Jordanian authorities said Safaa Mohammed Ali, 23, was part of the Al Qaeda in Iraq squad that bombed the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels on Wednesday.
In Baghdad, the U.S. command said a man by that name was detained by American forces in November 2004 during their assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. The Americans said they did not know if the man they detained was the same Safaa Mohammed Ali identified by the Jordanians as one of the bombers.
"He was detained locally at the division detention facility" but was released two weeks later because there was no "compelling evidence to continue to hold him" as a "threat to the security of Iraq," the military said.
The U.S. detention of thousands of Iraqis has been cited — especially by members of the Sunni Arab minority that fuels the insurgency — as a major motivation for the continuing campaign of violence.
Jordan said a Safaa Mohammed Ali, who came from the militant hotbed of Anbar Province — which includes Fallujah — drove with three other Iraqis into Jordan on Nov. 5. Four days later they attacked the three hotels.
Among the group of four was Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who appeared on Jordanian TV late Sunday confessing that she and her husband entered the Radisson, both aiming to detonate explosives-packed belts worn under clothing during a wedding reception.
But al-Rishawi said in the televised confession, watched by millions across Jordan, the Mideast and beyond, that her belt's trigger cord failed and she fled, while her husband, Ali Hussein Ali al-Shamari, carried out the attack.
"My husband detonated [his bomb] and I tried to explode [mine] but it wouldn't," said al-Rishawi during the three-minute television segment, in which she was shown wearing the disabled belt and appearing anxious. "People fled running and I left running with them."
Her confession shot her from rural Iraqi obscurity to global notoriety overnight and drew a mixed reaction among Jordanians.
"I sat there watching and couldn't understand how she could be speaking so coldly," said Adel Fathi, 29, who lost three relatives in the Radisson attack.
"What are these people made of?" added Fathi, who closed his women's accessories shop early and joined millions of others who watched the confession.
Al-Rishawi, 35, from the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi and the sister of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's slain lieutenant in western Iraq, was arrested Sunday. Police swooped on a safe house in the Jordanian capital after they were tipped by Al Qaeda in Iraq's Internet claim that she had died in the attacks.
She was made to display the clothing she wore to the party in which at least 25 people were killed.
Hers wasn't the first televised confession by terror suspects detained by Jordanian police. In April 2004, at least four Jordanian and Syrian militants linked to al-Zarqawi detailed their plot to launch chemical bomb attacks in Amman, particularly against the General Intelligence Department.
In her television appearance, al-Rishawi opened her dark fur-collared body-length overcoat to reveal two crude explosives belts — one packed with RDX and the other ball-bearings. They were strapped to her waist front and back with a thick binding of shiny silver tape.
A red cable reached up from her back over her shoulder, apparently part of the primer mechanism. She displayed a clear plastic bag containing a hand-held plunger device, which appeared to be the actual trigger.
Many Jordanians expressed doubt al-Rishawi's confession was real or that she was even involved in the plot.
"I don't buy it. There are many contradictions, and it just doesn't make sense," said Mohammed al-Fakhiri, a 33-year-old cell phone shop owner in Amman.
"The first thing she would have done is get rid of her explosive belt," al-Fakhiri said. "So how come she was caught with it?"
He also questioned why al-Rishawi wasn't wounded if her husband had detonated his explosives before she fled.
Deputy Premier Marwan Muasher said al-Shamari, 35, noticed his wife was having problems detonating her bomb and pushed her out of the ballroom before blowing himself up.
Al-Rishawi said her husband exploded his belt and she couldn't detonate hers. But it wasn't clear from her comments whether her husband blew himself up before her bomb malfunctioned or after.
She said her husband made all the arrangements for the plot and drove the group — apparently including Safaa Mohammed Ali and the other bomber Rawad Jassem Mohammed, both 23 — from Anbar to Amman, a roughly eight-hour trip across the bleak desert landscape.
The husband also fitted her with the belt and ordered a taxi to take them to the Radisson, she said.
"Her weak soul, her entourage and her husband made her carry out this horrible act because usually women are more sensitive toward such acts," said 33-year-old pharmacist Salma al-Qusous.
"But believe me, I felt disgusted [watching the confession] and this heartless woman deserves the harshest punishment," al-Qusous said.
Investigators are still interrogating al-Rishawi, who officials believe may provide a key link to Al Qaeda in Iraq leader al-Zarqawi and provide insights into the terror group's operations.
But questioning was slow, apparently because she still suffered from the shock of the attacks and her subsequent arrest, a security official said Monday.
Authorities believe more people helped arrange the attacks, but it was unclear if they were among 12 suspects arrested in connection with the bombings.