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Suicide vests rise as threat to troops

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BAQOUBA, Iraq — First came the rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and land mines, then the improvised explosive devices. More recently, U.S. forces in Iraq find themselves battling the growing use of perhaps the most horrific of al Qaeda's weapons, the suicide vest.

Fourteen persons died Monday in the latest suicide attack, a double bombing that killed the leader of a Concerned Local Citizen (CLC) patrol in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad.

A day earlier in Baghdad, an unidentified person detonated an explosive-laden vest during a ceremony honoring the Iraqi army, killing more than a dozen Iraqis including four soldiers.

The attacks have not been confined to the capital. In Baqouba, 35 to 40 miles further north, four persons were killed and 19 wounded on Christmas Day when a suicide bomber attacked a funeral procession for two CLC volunteers who had been killed by al Qaeda the previous day. A second explosion on Christmas Day killed or injured dozens more.

More recently, two persons were killed when a bomber jumped onto a parked police vehicle near a Baqouba bridge and detonated his charge.

U.S. forces yesterday announced the start of a new offensive against al Qaeda and its suicide bombers, dubbed Operation Phantom Phoenix.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said the offensive would involve a "series of joint Iraqi and coalition division- and brigade-level operations to pursue and neutralize remaining al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist elements."

The operation will include "nonlethal" elements "designed to improve delivery of essential services, economic development and local governance capacity," the military said in Baghdad.

In Baqouba, Lt. Col. Ricardo Love said the pace of al Qaeda suicide attacks "took off" about a month and a half ago.

"The first suicide bombing we had was at an Internet cafe — a suicider on a bicycle," said Col. Love, an intelligence officer with the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Al Qaeda in Iraq "are on their heels right now, I think. I see these attacks as acts of desperation to break the will of the people to reject them," he said.

Col. Love said the suicide bombers in Baqouba, capital of Diyala province, are generally male and between 13 and 25 years old. Some are willing to die for the Islamist cause; others do it because of threats against their families or even for money.

Informants have said al Qaeda pays $5,000 to $20,000 to the families of successful suicide attackers.

"They are targeting the CLCs heavily, together with the police and Iraqi army, tribal and government leaders and, of course, targets of opportunity — us."

The CLCs, whose members are paid $10 a day by the U.S. military to patrol their neighborhoods, pose a major problem for al Qaeda, Col. Love said.

Some are made up of former militia members who had aligned themselves with al Qaeda early in the insurgency but later were revolted by the group's wanton violence and cruelty, including several high-profile beheadings.

Yesterday's start of Operation Phantom Phoenix was the most forceful response to the wave of suicide bombings but far from the first.

In many districts of Baqouba, all private vehicle traffic has been banned since August. The only exceptions are food trucks and other essential service vehicles that must use prescribed roads and must pass through security checkpoints.

Citizens must use an established public transportation system, or else walk or use a bicycle or donkey cart.

Pedestrians with suicide vests are harder to guard against, but troops on patrol routinely insist that civilians remain at a distance of about 150 feet.

"Get back — now," yelled one U.S. soldier to an Iraqi civilian during a patrol in the Khatoon district of Baqouba. "Stay away."

First Lt. James Cleary, a fire support officer with the 1st Battalion, said the distancing is necessary to protect the troops as well as civilians, who inevitably suffer in such indiscriminate attacks.

"We and the Iraqi forces get information on these people, and we're certainly disrupting the [suicide] cells," he said. "But they still can do a lot of damage."

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