BAGHDAD—There was word that American forces would release four detainees at 11 a.m. at the neighborhood council, and the woman in a black abaya thought it was a good time to ask about her husband. Her husband, an Iraqi Army commissioner, went north to Tikrit one day a year ago, and was detained by American troops on the way there.

When the U.S. forces finally arrived, after 2 p.m., the woman in a black abaya was waiting quietly in the garden, watching her sons, a preteen boy and a toddler, play in the withered, dusty lawn. She waited while the troops smoked cigarettes with the council chairman. She waited while the detainees relatives came in and signed documents pledging that the detainees would not join anti-American militias. She waited some more while the detainees came in, tearfully embraced their loved ones and denounced violence.

When they finally left, the woman approached the American captain, Andrew Betson. In her hands she held two photographs of her husband, and two paper stubs American troops had given her, attesting that her husband had been detained.

“Can you tell me, please, where my husband is,” the woman said quietly. “Which detention center is holding him?”

She gave Captain Betson her husband’s full name: Mohammed Hussein Alwan Jasem al-Ubaidi.

“I don’t know why he has been detained. I need to know which detention facility is holding him,” she said.

“Many of them are just guilty by association,” muttered First Sergeant Jim Braet. It is his second deployment to Baghdad since 2003, and he’s seen how detentions can go.

The captain looked carefully at the picture she brought, depicting a middle-aged Iraqi man with a mustache. He looked at the paper stubs American forces gave her, indicating that her husband had been detained. He took down his name, and said he would try to find out. He made no promises.

“Do you want his picture?” the woman asked. “I’ve been looking for him for one year. God, please look for him!”

“I will try to find out,” the captain replied.

How would he find out? He does not even know how many residents of Saidiyah, the Baghdad neighborhood where he commands a U.S. Army company, have been detained over the years, or how many are still in detention.

“You’re talking years, and different units,” he said.

The woman walks away, holding her children’s hands, and I wondered how many of such women there are in Iraq, their husbands taken by American forces and disappeared in the vast coalition detention system.

Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. She has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, "A War Reporter's Pantry," will be published in January 2011 by Free Press/Simon&Schuster. She lives in Massachusetts.