The rise of the female suicide bomber

/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

U.S. military figures show the number of female suicide attacks has risen from eight in 2007 to at least 16 so far this year — not including a suicide bombing Friday near Ramadi that Iraqi police believe was carried out by a woman. That compares with a total of four in 2005 and 2006, according to the military.

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 Saddam Hussein's Baath party whose two sons joined al-Qaida in Iraq and were killed by Iraqi security forces.

Grief exploited?
But activists and U.S. commanders also believe al-Qaida 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-Qaida is preying on those who don't have jobs, who don't have education and who are feeling despair," said Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling told The Associated Press 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-Qaida's efforts to recruit women reflects its desperation after recent crackdowns.

"Al-Qaida 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."

"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 province 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 U.S. military says violence is down to its lowest levels in more than four years. The reasons include last year's U.S. troop buildup, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida and a cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

American commanders claim al-Qaida 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 U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said five of seven suicide attacks in the past three months in Diyala have been carried out by women.

They included a double bombing on May 17 in which a woman blew herself up outside an office for a U.S.-allied Sunni group and a female suicide car bomber killed one person in an attack on a police patrol.

"They do look for those three categories of illiterate, poor and able to manipulate religious fervor," he said.

Empty promises
In many cases, recruiters have promised the women that they will provide for their families after their deaths, then failed to follow through, Hertling said.

He also said at least two of the recent suicide bombers were the wives of an al-Qaida in Iraq leader who was killed in U.S. military operations, although he declined to give more further details.

Omayah Naji Jubara, the head of the Iraqi and Arabic Women's Organization for Salahuddin province, said Iraqi women outside major cities often find that "all the doors are closed to them" for jobs and education.

"Those terrorists come to poor people who are hungry and frustrated with the lack of government support," said Jubara.

In the meantime, the military is increasing the number of women in the police force.

Hertling said 112 women have enrolled in a police class in the volatile northern city of Kirkuk and the military is trying to set up a similar training program in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad.

"Just the fact that you're going to have Iraqi policewomen — that will help with security, help with searches, deal with female crimes that aren't well dealt with by male police officers," he said.

Alwan said insurgents will continue trying to exploit women's misery as long as the Shiite-dominated government fails in its efforts to improve their lives.

"Religion has been used in a very violent way to pressure the women to do certain things," she said. "Women in Diyala have been widowed, they have no support. They're unemployed. Many have been displaced, their houses demolished, their property gone, destroyed. Where can she go, a woman like that? What can she do?"