BAGHDAD — A top U.S. general said Saturday that the perpetrators of Friday's suicide bombings in Baghdad — the deadliest attacks in the capital in nine months — may have been mentally impaired teenaged girls who carried out the attacks unwittingly.
A British forensic expert cautioned, however, that suggesting the two bombers suffered from Down's Syndrome based on photographs of their severed heads was "dangerous." He noted that the heads would have suffered massive trauma when the bombers' explosives detonated.
"The diagnosis would have to be more scientific than that," said Bob Lamburne, the director of forensic services for the British embassy here.
Questions about the bombers' mental capacity came as Iraqi officials raised the death toll from Friday's bombings of two pet markets in Baghdad to 99, making them the deadliest attacks in the capital since April. At least 125 people were wounded, and some of those may still die from their injuries, authorities said.
At a news conference, Army Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, who commands U.S. forces in Baghdad, showed reporters photos of the bombers' heads, which typically are blown from the body in suicide attacks. He said the broad foreheads, flattened noses and almond-shaped eyes were all suggestive of Down's Syndrome.
"These two women were likely used because they didn't understand what was happening and they were less likely to be searched," Hammond said.
But Hammond also acknowledged that authorities had yet to identify the two women and that there was no other evidence of their mental condition. He declined to allow photographers to duplicate the photos, though video of one of the women's heads is available on the Internet.
Lambourne, who helped open Iraq's National Forensics Institute in Baghdad last year, said that the violent explosion that rips a head from its neck would also affect muscles, bones and arteries and could distort the face. The explosion likely would exert pressure on the face similar to G-forces experienced by pilots, Lamburne said.
"It would be dangerous to make that conclusion based on photos," he said, of the Down's Syndrome diagnosis.
Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar Hashemi, who oversees Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, said at the press conference with Hammond that the two women resembled one another, but that it was not known if they were related. A spokesman for the general, Qassim al Moussawi, said later that the bombers were no more than 16 years old.
"The person or group who were behind the explosions yesterday are people who have no religion and no faith. This is the work of desperate people," the general said.
Friday's bombings shocked the capital, which has enjoyed a general decline in violence in recent months, due largely to an increase in the number of U.S. troops and to security measures that include walling off public places with concrete barriers that prevent vehicles that might be carrying explosives from approaching.
But the two women apparently entered the market places without going through security checks. They detonated their explosives only 15 minutes apart, the first striking the Ghazil pet market in central Baghdad, the second hitting the dove market in the southeast district of New Baghdad, a heavily Shiite area.
The preliminary investigation indicates the Ghazil bomber carried her explosives in a backpack filled with ball bearings the size of a pinky fingernail, Hammond said.
The woman in the second attack wore a more typical suicide vest loaded with the same materials, Hammond said.
Moussawi said police recovered a cell phone and remote control device suggesting that the bombs had been detonated remotely.
Hammond could not say how the women made it through Iraqi checkpoints at the marketplaces. He said security forces have largely done a good job of searching people, but "It just didn't happen yesterday."
He said he couldn't confirm reports that the women were from the neighborhoods and were familiar to people at each market.
"We obviously have to step back and reassess ourselves. We're going to have some bad days and yesterday was a bad day," Hammond said.
Friday's attacks combined represent the worst violence in Baghdad in months. On Feb. 3, 2007, 108 people were killed and 320 injured by a truck bomb. On April 18, a truck bomb killed 140, injured 305 and damaged 10 buildings in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al Sadriyah.
After a low of 76 in November, the number of explosion-caused deaths in Baghdad has been creeping up, reaching 100 in January. February's death toll, already nearly the equal of January's after just two days, will almost certainly continue that trend.
A video of the recovery of one of the bombers' heads is posted at Baghdad Observer, Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel's blog.
(Lannen reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. McClatchy Special Correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this story.)