A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said he doubted the accusation and was not aware of such an incident. But neighbors interviewed around Arkan Mukhlif al-Batawi's villa in the capital's Sunni Arab suburb of Taji corroborated his account.
If true, the troops would have offended local sensibilities about the treatment of women; Amnesty International said they could also have broken international law by taking hostages.
Batawi, who spoke to Reuters at the offices of a leading group of Sunni clerics, said U.S. soldiers searched his home on Saturday. When they found neither him nor two brothers also on the wanted list, they arrested his mother and sister, he said.
A message purportedly left at the house by the troops, which urged the brothers to surrender, contained a mobile telephone number. This was answered by an American soldier who appeared to be aware of Batawi's accusation but declined further comment.
"Last Saturday morning, about 20 Humvees (military vehicles) surrounded our house and neighboring houses and when they failed to find us they took our mother and sister," said Batawi, who spent more than a year in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail after the U.S. invasion but denies any link to Iraq's insurgency.
He said he was not sure why the troops wanted to arrest him and his brothers, Muhammad and Saddam, again. But he believed they suspected them of involvement in insurgent attacks. All three were released in August from Abu Ghraib, which became notorious last year for abuses of prisoners by U.S. troops.
"GIVE YOURSELF UP"
A handwritten sign in Arabic on the front gate of their house read: "Be a man Muhammad Mukhlif and give yourself up and then we will release your sisters.
"Otherwise they will spend a long time in detention."
It was signed "Bandit 6," apparently U.S. Army code, possibly designating a company commander.
When Reuters called the mobile telephone number at the bottom of the message, an American answered, saying he was on a military patrol. Asked about Batawi's accusation, he said: "I can't comment on that. The commander will call you back."
Hours later, a second call elicited the same response before the American, who would not identify himself, hung up.
The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is active in the area.
A spokesman at U.S. headquarters in Iraq, who also declined to give his name, said he could neither confirm nor deny the incident. He said he did not find Batawi's account "plausible."
Three neighbors of the Batawi home did corroborate the accusation. They said U.S. troops, accompanied by Iraqi police, had arrested Batawi's 65-year-old mother and a sister who is 35.
"The Americans attacked the house of the Batawi family. They were searching for the brothers. When they could not find them they took the women," said one neighbor, Kamal Abbas.
"Through a translator they told us that they will release the women when the men surrender."
Batawi, who says his occupation is farming his land around Taji, said he and his brothers were imprisoned in 2003 on charges of attacking U.S. forces and planning armed assaults.
He said he would be willing to give himself up again if the Americans provided guarantees that his mother and sister would be freed. He and his brothers had sought the assistance of the Muslim Clerics Association, the main voice of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, in trying to resolve the situation.
"My brothers and I never attacked American forces before.
"But if they do not release our mother and sister we will be ready to attack them wherever they are," he said.
Near his home, another neighbor, Ali Jassem, said: "If they want the men they should take the men. Arresting women is not accepted by God ... Our tribal traditions reject such acts. Where are you, the advocates of democracy?"
Many Iraqis accuse American soldiers of heavy-handed tactics in their fight against mainly Sunni insurgents. U.S. commanders insist they do their best to avoid harming civilians.
There have been reports of U.S. commanders acknowledging they have taken relatives of fugitives into custody. While questioning relatives is seen as legitimate among police forces worldwide, holding them as hostages is not.
At Amnesty International, the London-based human rights lobby group, Middle East spokeswoman Nicole Choueiry said of Batawi's case: "I do not think it is the first time."
"We are against it. It is against international law to take civilians and use them as bargaining chips."
Tue Apr 5, 2005 03:50 PM ET By Waleed Ibrahim BAGHDAD© Reuters 2005