Saturday, February 2, 2008

Female suicide bombers killed more than 70 people in two separate attacks in crowded Baghdad markets yesterday, according to Iraqi officials who said both of the women were mentally disabled.

U.S. military officers said they could not confirm the claim, but quickly condemned the bombings as “barbaric” attacks that had the “hallmarks of being carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq.” Witnesses said pools of blood and debris were strewn across the streets.

Iraqi officials said at least 73 persons were killed in the bombings, which would make them the deadliest to hit Baghdad in months. U.S. officials reported 27 dead and 53 wounded.

It is common that death toll numbers vary widely between U.S. and Iraqi statements.

Brig. Gen. Qasim al-Moussawi told the Associated Press that the remotely detonated bombs had been strapped to the bodies of two women, both of whom had Down syndrome. It was not clear how Gen. al-Moussawi made the diagnosis without an autopsy.

The New York Times reported that a senior officer at the scene based the claim on the appearance of a bomber’s severed head. Down syndrome, once known as “mongoloidism,” is a genetic disorder whose victims often exhibit almond-shaped eyes.

It has long been suspected that al Qaeda in Iraq was exploiting people with Down syndrome. The Washington Times quoted Iraqis in March 2007 saying the terrorist group was using children with Down syndrome to carry bombs.

A U.S. military official said at that time that terrorists also used kidnapped children to pick up weapons in battle zones, get past checkpoints and die in car-bomb attacks.

Maj. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, said yesterday the military had seen “a few” women used in suicide attacks previously and that officials were “still assessing these particular bombings today.”

Al Qaeda’s unusual use of women, children or the mentally disabled in suicide attacks has been seen in the past but the tactics are of “great concern,” Maj. Leighton said.

But “we have no reason to doubt” the Iraqi reports about the mental condition of the bombers, he said.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described al Qaeda as “the most brutal and the most bankrupt of movements.”

The first attack took place yesterday morning in the city’s crowded central weekly al Ghazl market, which was full of shoppers taking advantage of improved security in Baghdad. At least 46 persons died in that blast, according to Iraqi figures.

Within an hour, a second suicide bomber blew herself up in the al Jadida bird market, killing at least 27 persons and injuring dozens more, the Iraqis said.

The heavy U.S. military presence in Baghdad over the past year had reduced the number of bomb attacks in the city, and people were once again beginning to venture out to popular venues.

“I believe what happened here today will backfire on al Qaeda,” said Maj. Leighton. No troops were injured or killed in the bombings, he added.

Al Qaeda is using “any devious method they have,” and “they are certainly not dead and still a viable enemy,” he said. “It was a soft target — a marketplace,” he said.

“I think [al Qaeda] is sinking to new lows. They are trying more desperate measures and hitting softer targets.”

According to the Associated Press, at least 151 persons have now been killed in at least 17 attacks or attempted attacks by female suicide bombers, although the use of women in warfare violates Iraq’s cultural taboos.

Navy Lt. Patrick Evans, a military spokesman, told The Times that the U.S. military’s data base on suicide bombers “is not broken down by gender.”

Other U.S. military officials covering the area south of Baghdad, including Babel, Salman Pak, Najaf and Karbala, said they had not seen the use of mentally disabled women as suicide bombers in their area.

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