Baghdad - It goes against religious taboos in Iraq to involve women in fighting, but three recent suicide bombings carried out by women could indicate insurgents are growing increasingly desperate.
The female suicide attacks come as US-led coalition forces are increasingly catching militants suspected of training women to become human bombs or finding evidence of efforts by al-Qaida in Iraq to recruit women, according to military records.
This image made from television shows Iraqi Sajida Mubarek Atrous al-Rishawi opening her jacket and showing an explosive belt as she confesses on Jordanian state-run television to her failed bid to set off an explosives belt inside one of the three Amman hotels targeted by al-Qaida in this Sunday Nov. 13, 2005 file photo. [Agencies]
With coalition forces pushing extremists out of former strongholds and shrinking their pool of potential recruits, the militants are being forced to come up with other methods to penetrate stiffened security measures, said Diaa Rashwan, who follows Islamic militancy for Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
"There's a sense that this is an act of desperation," said Col. Donald Bacon, a US military spokesman in Baghdad.
Female suicide bombers are a small part of the insurgents' battle to force US troops from Iraq and rattle Shiites from newly acquired power. Women have been responsible for 14 of 667 suicide attacks since May 2005, or 2 percent. They have caused at least 107 deaths, or 5 percent of the 2,065 people killed during this time period, according to Associated Press statistics.
But those attacks appear to be increasing.
In November and December, women carried out three suicide bombings in Diyala province, one of Iraq's most violent areas, where al-Qaida in Iraq has a stronghold. The last female suicide bombing had been in July.
On Nov. 4, a woman detonated an explosives vest next to a US patrol in Diyala's regional capital, Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, wounding seven US troops and five Iraqis. On Dec. 7, a woman attacked the offices of a Diyala-based Sunni group fighting al-Qaida in Iraq, killing 15 people and wounding 35. Then, on Dec. 31, a bomber in Baqouba detonated her suicide vest close to a police patrol, wounding five policemen and four civilians.
Devastating attacks continue in Iraq even as Iraqi casualties are down by 55 percent nationwide since June 2007. American and Iraqi forces, and thousands of Sunni tribal groups who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, have pushed the extremist group from Baghdad and Anbar province west of the capital. The al-Qaida fighters have moved into Diyala northeast of Baghdad and farther north into Mosul, 225 miles northwest of the capital.
The tightening noose -- at least for now -- appears to be prompting the militants to turn to women attackers, Rashwan said, noting that extremist Muslim groups use women only when they see no alternative.
"Women should be in the last rows" of fighting, he said. "So to see women (suicide bombers) shows an abnormal situation -- the absence of men."
Women have acted as suicide bombers for other causes. The first known female suicide bomber was Sana Mheidali, a Lebanese who killed two Israeli soldiers in 1985. Female Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka have carried out at least 60 suicide bombings in 24 years. Palestinian Muslim militants send out women suicide bombers, as does the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla war since 1984 for autonomy in Turkey's southeast.
Because of Muslim cultural sensitivities, women can be excellent candidates for suicide attacks when there are no female security guards. Most Iraqis are conservative Muslims who believe physical contact is forbidden between women and men not related by blood or marriage. As a result, women are often allowed to pass through male-guarded checkpoints without being searched. In October, the US Army trained 20 women to work as security guards in a Baghdad suburb after a female suicide bomber entered a nearby building without being searched.
"We know it's a tactic that al-Qaida in Iraq is trying to use," Bacon said.
At least twice in December and once in August, al-Qaida members suspected of training women to use suicide belts were captured, the US military has said. There are no military reports before August indicating suspicion of al-Qaida in Iraq training women attackers.
Some female bombers appear to be 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.