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Suicide bombing, an Islamic tactic for decades, is new concern for U.S. troops in Iraq

JERUSALEM—A suicide bombing that killed four American troops Saturday near Najaf, Iraq, may be the latest tactic in Saddam Hussein's bid to repulse a U.S.-led invasion, but it has been bedeviling foreign troops since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

From the invading soldier's standpoint, it means every car and every person who approaches a military post is suspect. That can demoralize troops who have been trained to stand and fight the enemy, because it means that, as long as they are in enemy land, no soldier feels safe from a phenomenon seen in the West as terrorism.

From the radical Islamic viewpoint, the suicidal attacker is a "martyr"—not a terrorist—guaranteed a place in paradise for fighting to rid Muslim soil of infidel invaders.

A ceremony of recognition traditionally follows the bomber's death. Iraq adopted the custom Saturday by declaring the bomber, Ali Hammadi al Namani, a national hero on Iraqi TV and awarding him two medals posthumously.

As Israelis have discovered during the more than two years of the current Palestinian uprising, it's not hard to find volunteers to strap on vests filled with dynamite and detonate them near enemy forces or to drive cars loaded with explosives near military sites.

Retired Israeli army Lt. Col. Gal Luft has labeled the tactic a "poor man's smart bomb," or an "H-Bomb," that uses exploding human beings to try to tip the balance in an even war.

"Both Islamists and secular Palestinians have come to see suicide bombing as a weapon against which Israel has no comprehensive defense," Luft wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last year.

"To counter the Iraqi Scuds, Israel developed and deployed the Arrow, a $2 billion ballistic missile defense system. Against Palestinian H-bombs, Israel can at best build a fence," Luft wrote. "The suicide bombers are smarter than Scuds, and Palestinians know that even though in Israel today there are more security guards than teachers or doctors, the bomber will always get through."

U.S. troops also have firsthand experience with suicide bombers. President Reagan pulled U.S. troops from Beirut, Lebanon, soon after a bomber drove a huge truck bomb into a Marine barracks and killed 241 U.S. servicemen in October 1983. Washington has blamed the Iranian-backed Hezbollah for that attack.

Saddam, a secular leader who doesn't wrap the ritual in promises of paradise, has been stoking the Palestinian practice throughout the uprising. Iraq awards families of suicide bombers $25,000, delivered in graduation-style ceremonies in the Gaza Strip orchestrated by the pro-Iraqi Arab Liberation Front.

Saturday's was the first such attack in this war to kill American forces, but it was the second suicide bombing since U.S. troops started their invasion of Iraq. A week earlier, a driver blew up a car bomb near the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing an Australian journalist and four other people near a roadblock.

That attack was blamed on the extremist Ansar al Islam organization, which the Bush administration has linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.