A girl strapped with explosives approaches an Iraqi army captain, who dies in the suicide blast. A woman posing as a mother-to-be to disguise a bulging bomb belt strikes a wedding procession as part of a coordinated attack that kills nearly three dozen people.
The attacks last month were among the latest blows by female suicide bombers — and further evidence of shifting insurgent tactics amid an overall drop in bloodshed around Iraq.
US military figures show the number of female suicide attacks has risen from eight last year to at least 16 so far this year — not including a suicide bombing on Friday near Ramadi that Iraqi police believe was carried out by a woman. That compares with a total of four in 2005 and 2006, the military said.
Some female bombers appear motivated by revenge, like the woman who killed 15 people in Diyala province on Dec. 7. She was a former member of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, whose two sons joined al-Qaeda in Iraq and were killed by Iraqi security forces.
But activists and US commanders also believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is increasingly seeking to exploit women who are unable to deal with the grief of losing husbands, children and others to the violence.
“Al-Qaeda is preying on those who don’t have jobs, who don’t have education and who are feeling despair,” said Major General Mark Hertling on the sidelines of a conference this week on women’s issues.
The use of women as suicide bombers is a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq, although it has been used by militants elsewhere, particularly in Sri Lanka.
Farhana Ali, a terrorism expert with the RAND Corp who has studied the issue extensively, said al-Qaeda’s efforts to recruit women reflects its desperation after recent crackdowns.
“Al-Qaeda and insurgents are now desperate and want to ensure that their cause [and] organization stays alive,” she said.
“Women’s participation in violence keeps the cause alive for many reasons: Women, like men, also share similar grievances, especially women who have suffered a loss,” she said.
“Women control their families and communities and when that structure is broken down, women are vulnerable, weak, easily exploited by insurgents,” she added.
Faiza Sayyid Alwan, a Sunni provincial council member from Diyala who has escaped three assassination attempts, says vulnerable women need to be given more options.
“We must intervene,” she said at the conference in Irbil, the largest city in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. “While the enemy is trying to reach her with negative influences, we must reach in faster and rescue that woman by giving her better ideas, by helping her, by training her and giving her a better opportunity.”
The rise in female suicide bombings comes as the US military says violence is down to its lowest levels in more than four years.
The reasons include last year’s US troop buildup, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda and a ceasefire by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
US commanders claim al-Qaeda in Iraq is seeking out women and children to evade stepped up security measures and checkpoints.
Iraqi women often are allowed to pass through male-guarded checkpoints without being searched and they traditionally wear flowing black robes that make it easier to hide explosives belts.
Hertling, who commands US forces in northern Iraq, said five of seven suicide attacks in the past three months in Diyala have been carried out by women.
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