Surge of Suicide Bombers; the Iraq War Has Turned into a Veritable 'Martyr' Factory, Unlike Any Seen in Previous Conflicts

By Nordland, Rod; Dehghanpisheh, Babak | Newsweek, August 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

Surge of Suicide Bombers; the Iraq War Has Turned into a Veritable 'Martyr' Factory, Unlike Any Seen in Previous Conflicts


Nordland, Rod, Dehghanpisheh, Babak, Newsweek


Byline: Rod Nordland and Babak Dehghanpisheh (With Larry Kaplow and Iraqi staff in Baghdad, and Christopher Dickey in Paris)

In the video that serves as his last will and testament, the youthful, well-dressed Saudi, known only as "Fatima's Fiance," is laughing and joking with the cameraman who will record his death a few minutes later. "Pray for Allah to make my mission easy," he says, and waves as he climbs into a maroon sedan, grinning broadly. "May Allah make it easy for you," the cameraman says obligingly, and laughs. The scene cuts away to an earlier interview, where the Saudi announces that when he gets to heaven he plans to marry a woman named Fatima, who was allegedly abused in Abu Ghraib Prison. Then the scene shifts to a highway in Iraq, with a line of 18-wheelers roaring along and a red circle superimposed over the bomber's approaching car. As the music swells and the screen fills with an orange-and-black fireball, the cameraman cries, "Thanks to Allah!"

Such scenes are all too easily found on YouTube--and hundreds more like them are never caught on tape. While new figures show that the U.S. death toll dipped to its lowest total all year in the month of July, the number of Iraqis being killed continues to rise: some 1,652 civilians died in July alone. Many if not most of those deaths are the result of what has become an epidemic of suicide bombings. In the first three years of the war, there were fewer than 300 such attacks; in the year ending June 30 there were at least 540, according to a U.S. Department of Defense intelligence analyst in Iraq who specializes in the subject but is not authorized to speak on the record. Since January, the U.S. military says, more than 4,000 Iraqis have been killed or injured by suicide bombers. Last Wednesday, 50 more died in a truck bombing in Baghdad. "Iraq has superseded all the other suicide-bomb campaigns [in modern history] combined," says Mohammed Hafez, author of "Suicide Bombers in Iraq" and a U.S. government consultant. "It's really amazing."

What's perhaps even more surprising is that the majority of the bombers are not Iraqi. National-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie says that Saudis account for half the suicide bombings in Iraq. U.S. military estimates agree, and put Iraqis a distant second; in analyzing cases where the bomber's identity is definitively known, Hafez comes up with similar figures. Saudis play a little role in the insurgency as a whole but are key to the suicide-bombing campaign: the U.S. intelligence analyst estimates that "about half the Saudis crossing into Iraq come as suicide bombers."

That's one of the reasons the Bush administration's plan to sell $20 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates has aroused protest. "Saudi Arabia is the engine of jihad," says a U.S. adviser in Baghdad who is not authorized to speak on the record. Recently the American ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Saudis in particular were "not doing all they can to help us" in Iraq. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said he was "astonished" by the criticism. But privately, the Saudis admit they have a problem. A Saudi security consultant with close ties to senior officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, says the Saudi government estimates that 850 of its citizens have gone to fight in Iraq since 2003, of whom at least 50 percent have been killed.

IEDs may take more American lives, but suicide bombs have had a more devastating impact on the way the war is fought. "Martyrdom operations [the jihadist term for suicide bombings] are effective because our losses are little and the opposition's losses are great," says Oslo-based Mullah Krekar, a radical Iraqi Kurd who founded Ansar Al-Islam, one of the first groups to use suicide bombings in the war. The tactic has driven a wedge between Americans and Iraqis: all U.S. outposts are now ringed by layers of blast walls and other obstacles, while convoys warn Iraqis to "stay 100 meters back" or risk being shot.

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