Woman suicide bomber kills 6 in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — A woman, disguised in a man’s robes and headdress, slipped into a line of army recruits and detonated explosives strapped to her body Wednesday, killing at least six recruits and wounding 35 near the border with Syria — the first known suicide attack by a woman in Iraq’s insurgency.

The attack appeared aimed at showing that militants could still strike in a town where US and Iraqi offensives drove out insurgents only two weeks before. A female suicide bomber may have been chosen because she could get through the checkpoints leading into the town of Tal Afar — at which women are rarely searched — then don her disguise to join the line of men, Iraqi officials said.

Iraq’s most notorious insurgent group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack in an Internet statement, saying it was carried out by a “blessed sister.” It came a day after US and Iraqi officials announced their forces killed the second-in-command of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abdullah Abu Azzam, in a raid in Baghdad over the weekend. Still, the killing has not slowed insurgent violence, with at least 81 people — including six US servicemembers — killed in attacks since Sunday.

US President George W. Bush warned there will be increase in violence leading up to a key October 15 referendum on a new constitution — a document that has sharply divided Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority, who form the backbone of the insurgency.

“We can expect they’ll do everything in their power to try to stop the march of freedom,” Bush said. “And our troops are ready for it.” The female suicide bomber was wearing a traditional white “dishdasha” robe and a checkered kaffiya headscarf — both worn only by men — to blend in with the line of Iraqi applicants waiting at an army recruitment centre in Tal Afar, Maj. Jamil Mohammed Saleh said.

She then detonated explosives packed with metal balls and hidden under her clothes, Saleh said. Six recruits were killed and 35 wounded, said hospital officials in Tal Afar, 420 kilometres northwest of Baghdad.

In a photo of the attacker’s head taken by Saleh and shown to the Associated Press, the woman appeared to be in her early 20s with dark eyes, light skin and brownish hair.

Saleh said it was not known whether she was Iraqi.

US and Iraqi troops swept through Tal Afar in a September 8-12 offensive, with Iraqi authorities claiming nearly 200 suspected militants were killed and 315 captured. But many of the insurgents in the town escaped, and since then the bulk of the forces participating in the offensive withdrew, though a US base remains.

It was the first known time that a woman has succeeded in carrying out a suicide bombing since the insurgency began — though four women, reportedly sent by another insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, were caught in a town south of Baghdad in March before they could set off explosives belts they were wearing. In the last days of Saddam Hussein’s regime, just before the April 2003 fall of Baghdad, two women detonated their car near the city of Haditha, killing three American soldiers.

Gen. Ahmed Mohammed Khalaf, the regional police chief, said insurgents were exploiting the fact that women are not searched at checkpoints leading into the town “because of religious and social traditions.” Women and children will now be searched at Tal Afar checkpoints, he said.

But the attack raised the prospect of more women bombers being used, a tactic that is difficult to defend against, especially during the referendum. Men and women turned out in large numbers to vote in parts of Iraq during January parliamentary elections — and images of veiled women flashing their ink-stained fingers after voting became an iconic symbol of hopes for democracy.

Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, intelligence head at the Iraqi interior ministry, said the Tal Afar attack “rings danger alarms” and requires new techniques, including increased searches of women at sensitive locations.

“But this will be a problem, because women are taking part in our new political life and finding large numbers of female security officers to search them is not an easy process,” he told AP.

In the past, women have taken only a support role in the insurgency, helping smuggle equipment or feed, shelter and give medical treatment to fighters, said Nora Bensahel, an insurgency expert with Rand Corp., a nonprofit research group based in Santa Monica, California.

“This could be a sign that the insurgency is getting greater support among a larger segment of the population, that women are getting more militant and willing to take on a greater role,” Bensahel said. “It could also be a sign that the insurgents are having trouble finding male recruits.” In other developments:

— A Jordanian embassy car was ambushed by gunmen close to the Ghazaleih Bridge in Baghdad on Wednesday, the Jordan News Agecny, Petra, reported. An embassy official and an Iraqi policeman were travelling in the car at the time of the attack but were unhurt, according to a government spokesperson. The spokesperson said the attackers shot three bullets at the car. Another car travelling behind the embassy vehicle was also attacked, resulting in the death of the driver and accompanying policeman.

— An attacker on Wednesday slammed his vehicle into an Iraqi police patrol in central Baqouba, 60 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, killing a passer-by and wounding 14 Iraqis, including 10 policemen, said Ahmed Mohammed at Baqouba General Hospital.

— A US soldier was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb at the town of Safwan on Iraq’s border with Kuwait on Wednesday and a Marine was killed Tuesday in clashes in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, the military said. It also announced the death of a Marine in nearby Fallujah by non-hostile gunfire on Monday.

The deaths brought to 1,921 the number of US service members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

— The US military announced that a car stopped as a suspected car bomb inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was discovered in later analysis not to have contained explosives.

In Baghdad, police found the bodies of seven men who had been shot to death and dumped in the northern neighbourhood of Shuala, police Maj. Falah Mohammedawi said.

Tahir Dawood, a Sunni resident in a nearby district, identified the men at the morgue as two of his brothers and five of his cousins. Dawood told AP that the seven were taken away by men dressed in police uniforms who stormed their homes early Tuesday.

Insurgents have often disguised themselves as police to snatch people — usually Shiite Muslims — and kill them. But Sunnis have also accused police under the Shiite-led interior ministry of carrying out revenge killings against Sunnis.

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