BAGHDAD — With U.S. forces imposing tough security measures to thwart car bombings, Iraqi insurgents are increasingly using women and teenagers as suicide bombers, a trend that on Friday led to the worst daily death toll in Baghdad since August.
Nearly 100 people were killed and nearly 150 were wounded when explosions ripped through two crowded Baghdad pet markets. The attacks, which occurred within 15 minutes of each other, appeared to be the sixth and seventh suicide bombings in Iraq by women or teenagers since Nov. 27, though there was some uncertainty about whether one of Friday's blasts might have been caused by a roadside bomb.
Witnesses said the bombers were women who'd slipped into the markets without being searched, as Iraqi security forces include few women and men aren't allowed to search women. Iraqi police are trying to recruit more female members.
One Iraqi official who speaks for Qassim al Moussawi, the spokesman of the Baghdad security plan, said the women might have been mentally retarded and forced to wear suicide vests that were detonated remotely.
Other police officials expressed skepticism about the claim, saying it was made too quickly for any investigation to have taken place, but Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki seemed to echo that version in his condemnation of the attacks.
"The terrorists' use of a mentally deranged woman has uncovered the lowly ethics of these criminal gangs and their deceit and animosity toward humanity," he said in a statement.
American military officials said that 15 suicide bombers struck throughout Iraq in the first 25 days of January, five more than in the same period a year ago.
U.S. spokesman Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said in an e-mail that the increase in American troops in Iraq had made it harder for Islamic militants to build large vehicle bombs and slip them into markets and neighborhoods, many of which have been encircled by large concrete walls.
"Suicide vests or smaller hand-carried bombs are of course more mobile and easier to transport," he said, and have become the weapons of choice.
There was no doubt that the first bombing, at about 10:15 a.m. at the Ghazil market in central Baghdad, was a suicide attack; police found the head of the suspected bomber, and witnesses recorded its gruesome recovery on their cell phones.
Bombs have struck the Ghazil market, which sits between neighborhoods controlled by rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim factions, three times in the last year.
The U.S. military blamed the last bombing, in November, on the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, and said that the attack was intended to shore up support for the militia from the Shiite community.
The American military said Friday's bombing was the work of Islamic militants affiliated with the group al Qaida in Iraq. As is frequently the case in accounts of violence, U.S. officials offered a death toll that was only half that of Iraqi authorities'.
There was some confusion about the perpetrator of the second bombing, at a dove market in the New Baghdad neighborhood in the city's southeast.
Witnesses said that a woman wearing a long traditional robe known as an abaya had triggered the explosion, but a police official told McClatchy that authorities were still investigating whether the explosion might have come from a cage or box.
More than 60 people were killed and 82 wounded in the Ghazil blast. At least 37 were killed and 67 wounded by the explosion at the dove market, where witnesses described nails, bones and pieces of flesh flying through the air. The bloody imprint of a man's body that had been slammed into a metal kiosk was visible on a vendor's stall after the explosion.
A father who'd been walking with his young son panicked when he saw blood pouring from the boy's wounds. He picked him up and started to run, but quickly became exhausted. He dropped to the ground, put his head in his hands and wailed before people came to his aid, loading his son into a car and driving the pair away.
Vendors denounced the attack. "You are ruining a whole society, killing the innocent because of political rivalries," Moayed Kaif, 53, a shop owner, said of the bombers. "If you must kill, go to those whom you have a problem with and settle your differences without killing innocents."
The bombings were a setback for U.S. authorities, who've made securing markets a major goal of the American troop buildup. Concrete barriers surround the Ghazil market to control access, and Iraqi soldiers and Sunni members of a U.S.-paid security force known as concerned local citizens man checkpoints at the market's entrance and exit.
But residents said searches were sporadic and that no one had touched the woman who blew herself up. A male McClatchy correspondent walked into the market after the bombing without being searched.
Friday's death toll also seemed to cement a recent steady increase in the monthly toll of Baghdad bombing deaths. In September, 164 people died from bombings, according to McClatchy statistics. That number reached a low of 76 in November, but rose to 87 in December and 100 in January. With 65 deaths on the first day of the month, February seems likely to witness another increase.
(Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)