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Originally published Saturday, February 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Baghdad bombers described as mentally disabled

Two women described as mentally disabled were strapped with explosives and used — perhaps unwittingly — as suicide bombers...

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- Two women described as mentally disabled were strapped with explosives and used -- perhaps unwittingly -- as suicide bombers, killing at least 91 people Friday at two pet markets, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Iraq's chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said the women had Down syndrome and may not have known they were on suicide missions, but he gave no further details on how authorities pieced together the evidence. He also said the bombs -- which exploded 20 minutes apart in different parts of the city -- were detonated by remote control.

Women have been used in ever greater frequency in suicide attacks because they often encounter less scrutiny by security officials. The twin attacks at the pet markets, however, could mark a disturbing use of unknowing agents of death.

Iraqi officials said the death toll was 91, but did not provide a casualty breakdown in the two bombings, which they earlier had said killed 73.

Officials said the first bomb was detonated about 10:20 a.m. in the central al-Ghazl market. Four police and hospital officials said at least 46 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.

Police said the woman wearing the bomb sold cream in the mornings at the market and was known to locals as "the crazy lady."

Bombs have struck the al-Ghazl market, which sits between neighborhoods controlled by rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim factions, three times in the past year. The U.S. military blamed the previous bombing, in November, on the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and said that attack was intended to shore up support for the militia from the Shiite community.

With violence declining in the capital, the market had regained popularity as a shopping district and place to stroll on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.

A pigeon vendor said the market had been unusually crowded Friday, with people taking advantage of a pleasantly crisp, clear winter day after a particularly harsh January.

"It was nice weather today," said Ali Ahmed. He said he was worried about his friend Zaki, who disappeared after the blast about 40 yards away.

"I just remember the horrible scene of the bodies of dead and wounded people mixed with the blood of animals and birds, then I found myself lying in a hospital bed," Ali said.

About 20 minutes after the first attack, the second female suicide bomber apparently was blown apart in a bird market in a predominantly Shiite area in southeastern Baghdad. Initial reports had said as many as 27 people died and 67 were wounded.

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Navy Cmdr. Scott Rye, a U.S. military spokesman, gave far lower casualty figures -- seven killed and 23 wounded in the first bombing, and 20 killed and 30 wounded in the second.

He said both attacks were carried out by women wearing explosives vests and said the attacks appeared coordinated and likely the work of the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq.

But a police official told McClatchy Newspapers that authorities were still investigating whether the explosion at the second market might have come from a bomb hidden in a cage or a box of eggs.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said the bombings showed that a resilient al-Qaida has "found a different, deadly way" to try to destabilize Iraq.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem al-Ezzi, a senior officer in the Ministry of Interior police commandos, said officials at the al-Ghazl market concluded after studying the bomber's decapitated head that she had Down syndrome. But Iraqi officials have made similar claims in the past, and it was not immediately clear whether the bomber's head could have been distorted by the blast.

"We are aware that Iraqi officials have reported the women as mentally disabled," the American military said in a statement released in Baghdad late on Friday. "We do not have independent reports beyond what they have said, but we have no reason to doubt them."

One witness, Mohammed Qasem, 35, a vendor at al-Ghazl, said he saw the woman minutes before the explosion, apparently behaving normally. "She was guiding a small kid with her, and she wasn't uncomfortable at all," he said.

In recent months, there have been at least six female suicide bombers in different parts of Iraq, particularly in Diyala province, north of the capital. Women in Iraq often wear abayas, the black Islamic robe, and avoid thorough searches at checkpoints because men are not allowed to touch them and there are few female police.

While involving women in such deadly activity violates cultural taboos in Iraq, the U.S. military has warned that al-Qaida is recruiting women and young people as suicide attackers because militants are increasingly desperate to thwart stepped-up security measures.

The attacks come as U.S. military officials weigh how to pull troops from Iraq without losing the security gains achieved since July, when the last of 28,500 additional American forces arrived. The extra combat power was intended to quell violence and give Iraqi politicians a stable environment in which to work toward reconciliation.

It also enabled troops to launch a series of offensives that flushed insurgents out of Baghdad and neighboring al-Anbar province and led to large declines in violence in those areas.

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 al-Ghazl market to control access, and Iraqi soldiers and Sunni members of a U.S.-paid security force man checkpoints at the market's entrance and exit.

Shoppers and vendors said the market is not rigorously guarded. They said untrained, U.S.-financed local gunmen, known as the Awakening forces, help guard the market.

"They were searching people for a while and then they stopped," said Wasfi Abed Yasin, 47, who was selling Dobermans, which he wanted to train to sniff for bombs. "They are not professionals; they just joke around."

Information from The New York Times, McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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