A top U.S. commander said Saturday that two bombings carried out by women wrapped in bombs that killed nearly 100 people in Baghdad underscored that al-Qaida in Iraq remains a serious threat, but he vowed the military would "not give back any terrain" to the terror network.
Iraqis in Baghdad demanded more protection for markets, saying one of the bombers wasn't searched because she was known as local beggar and the male guards were reluctant to search women because of Islamic sensitivities.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said Saturday that pictures showed the bombers had Down syndrome and likely did not know they were being used in Friday's attacks.
Ali Nassir, a 30-year-old day laborer whose hobby is raising birds, said people with disabilities often beg for food and money at the weekly al-Ghazl pet bazaar on Fridays.
"I saw the suicide bomber and she was begging," Nassir said, adding the woman was known to the vendors. "The security guards did not search her because she is a woman and because it is not unusual to have beggars, mainly women and children, moving around in the market."
Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were authorized to release the information, raised the death toll of Friday's attacks to at least 99 — 62 people in the first blast at the central al-Ghazl bazaar and 37 others about 20 minutes later at the New Baghdad area pigeon market in southeastern Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, said the women appeared to be unwitting attackers.
"It appears the suicide bombers were not willing martyrs, they were used by al-Qaida for these horrific attacks," he said. "These two women were likely used because they didn't understand what was happening and they were less likely to be searched."
He also reiterated military warnings that al-Qaida remains a serious threat despite major inroads against the network since the Americans began sending some 30,000 extra troops to the capital and surrounding areas in the spring.
"These two suicide vest attacks represent the worst of human nature," Hammond said during a news conference. He said American forces would continue their targeted operations that have succeeded in decreasing attacks.
"We will not give back any terrain here in Baghdad," he said.
Women had Down syndrome
Iraqi officials said they had pictures of the two women's heads that were found at the scene that proved they had Down syndrome, and they said the explosives had been detonated by remote-control.
"This is very credible information," said Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, the chief Iraqi military commander in Baghdad, adding the photos would not be released to the public because of humanitarian concerns.
Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman for the Baghdad area, said "they were both females and they both looked like they had Down syndrome." Medical experts with his division had examined the photos and agreed the women probably suffered from the genetic disorder, he said.
A cell phone image of one of the heads viewed by The Associated Press was inconclusive.
The U.S. military, which gave a lower combined death toll of 27, blamed the attacks on al-Qaida in Iraq and said they signaled a new desperation as concrete blast barriers and other security measures have stanched the group's ability to stage deadly car bombings and similar attacks.
"It sounds like (al-Qaida in Iraq) has stooped to a new low where they're using people who may not even know what they're doing and strapped something to them and told them go into a market," Stover said.
He said one of the women was carrying a backpack that was stuffed with ball bearings and shrapnel to maximize the casualties, while the other one was wearing an explosives vest.
'Ugliness of this crime'
The bombings served as a reminder that Iraqi insurgents are constantly shifting their strategies in attempts to unravel recent security gains around the country. Women have been used in ever greater frequency in suicide attacks — six times now since November.
Friday's blasts were the deadliest in the capital since an April 18 suicide car bombing that killed 116 and wounded 145.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to crack down on the militants. "The ugliness of this crime will not deter our security forces. It will increase our determination to continue crushing the dens of the terrorists," he said in a statement.
Onlookers gathered at the New Baghdad pigeon market Saturday, peering through twisted metal into the charred remains of stalls and shops. Vendors sifted through ruined wares. One man held up a tattered piece of clothing, ripped apart by Friday's blast or in the frenzied panic that followed.
Haider Jabar, a 28-year-old government employee who lives near the market and often goes for a stroll among the cages, said the woman used in that attack was a stranger to the locals.
"The woman seemed to be handicapped. It was uncommon to have a woman walking inside New Baghdad bird market, this fact had attracted many teenagers who had gathered around her at the time of the explosion," he said.
Others called on authorities to step up measures to protect the market, which unlike many others in the capital is not surrounding by concrete barriers.
"Every place in Baghdad is exposed to terrorist attacks," said survivor Badir Sami, 42. "I demand tighter security measures at popular markets like this, where many people gather especially on Fridays."
Another pigeon dealer, Ali Mansour, said he was packing up his shop after surviving three attacks in the al-Ghazl market.
Al-Maliki, meanwhile, turned his attention to the northwestern city of Mosul, promising what he said would be the final showdown with al-Qaida in Iraq led insurgents said to have taken refuge there to escape U.S.-led offensives in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
U.S. commanders in northern Iraq have said the battle to oust al-Qaida in Iraq from its last urban stronghold will not be a swift strike as al-Maliki suggested, but rather a grinding campaign that will require more firepower.
Iraqi police and military units have been dispatched to the area, and al-Maliki said he was eager to "end the matter as soon as possible," although he gave no start date. The prime minister also named the commander of the security operations in and around Mosul as newly promoted Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal, a senior officer in the region.
"We have come here to start the march of liberating Mosul from terrorists and outlaws," al-Maliki said during a meeting with Iraqi military commanders in the city, which is the capital of Ninevah province. "The stabilization of this province will send the last message that al-Qaida and the remnants of the former regime are defeated."