Mohammed Sawaf/Getty Images
Iraqis inspect a crater left by an explosion at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in the holy city of Karbala this past weekend. The blast killed at least 55 people and wounded nearly 160.
Mohammed Sawaf/Getty Images
An Iraqi military spokesman has announced that heavy vehicles will be banned from crossing most of Baghdad's bridges. The ban appears to be designed to keep the bridges safe from suicide bombers; hundreds of suicide bombers have detonated their explosives in the four years of the Iraq war.
Suicide bombings have been used in various conflicts around the world since 1980. But never has the world seen such an enormous number of such attacks as in Iraq — at least 350, and likely more, since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
On April 12, a man smuggled a suicide vest inside the building housing Iraq's parliament in the Green Zone, the most fortified and protected area in all of Iraq. There are numerous checkpoints involving frisking, bomb-sniffing dogs and electronic sensors.
But somehow the bomber managed to get inside, and he detonated his bomb, killing himself and one member of parliament.
As such attacks go, the death toll was minor. Symbolically, though, the message was clear: suicide attackers can hit anywhere.
Now, as thousands of additional U.S. troops are being deployed to Baghdad's neighborhoods as part of the "surge" strategy, there has been an epidemic of suicide attacks. The bombers use cars, trucks. They can be on foot. They get very close to their targets, and their attacks are highly lethal — far more deadly than ordinary roadside bombs.
On April 18, a string of bombings, most of them suicide attacks, cut a swath of death and mayhem across Baghdad. Nearly 200 people were killed that day, 140 of them in one huge blast at the predominantly Shiite market in Sadriya, a neighborhood of north central Baghdad.
It's fair to say that the suicide bomber is the insurgency's most devastating weapon, yet there is precious little understanding of who orchestrates the attacks and what motivates the attackers.
Many attacks have taken place in markets and bus stations, killing thousands of civilians. Most of the civilians killed have been Shiites. Most if not all of the suicide attacks have been carried out by Sunni insurgents.
Last year, NPR conducted a short interview with a would-be suicide bomber, a teenage Iraqi girl.
"My name is Noor Abid Ghezal," she said in Arabic. "I am 18 years old. I am accused of terrorism; the attempted assassination of Hussein al-Sadr, the member of the parliament from Kadhimiya."
Speaking from a jail cell, Noor told a story laced with romance and deception, at once naive and bitter, reflecting just how ruthless and manipulative those who plan these attacks can be.
"I was a student," she said. "I only had my mother at home but she died. After that I fell in love with my stepmother's friend. I loved him and he loved me. I didn't know that he was such a bastard until later on."
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there have been at least 351 confirmed suicide bombings in Iraq. That number was supplied by Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. Pape is the director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, which maintains perhaps the world's most extensive database on suicide attacks.
Pape's data indicate that the pace of suicide bombing in Iraq is increasing at an alarming rate.
"Before our invasion in March 2003, Iraq never experienced a suicide attack in its history," Pape said. "Since our invasion, suicide terrorism has been essentially doubling in Iraq every year that we've had more or less 150,000 American combat soldiers stationed there."
Pape has looked closely at who conducts suicide bombing across the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, examining educational level and socio-economic background, among other factors. In many cases, the bombers relayed their rationale in their own words, after videotapes surfaced or their last words were posted on the Internet.
Pape concluded that suicide bombing is used primarily against forces that the attackers see as foreign occupiers or collaborators.
Many in Iraq deny that Iraqis carry out suicide attacks, pointing instead to fighters associated with al-Qaida, who come from outside Iraq.
But the record shows otherwise. The first suicide bombing against U.S. troops occurred during the invasion, on March 29, 2003, in Najaf. It was carried out by a member of the Iraqi force known as the Fedayeen Saddam. Before the war was over, U.S. Marines found a stockpile of suicide vests hidden in a school in Baghdad.
Of the 351 confirmed suicide attacks in Iraq by the end of 2006, the Chicago project has been able to identify 55 of the attackers. Thirteen were Iraqis; 16 were Saudis. Three-quarters of the attackers were Iraqi or from the Sunni-dominated states bordering Iraq.
Pape has not found one confirmed instance of a Shiite suicide bomber in the Iraq conflict.
Of the targets, more than 50 percent were military. Civilian targets accounted for more than 30 percent last year.
In the case of Noor, her boyfriend wanted her to kill a Shiite member of parliament.
"He turned out to work with a terrorist group," Noor said. "He introduced me to another group of men. They were terrorists, but I didn't realize this. They entrapped me, and here I am in prison."
In the interview with her last year, Noor did not explain why she did not go through with the bombing, or how one of her handlers was seized when she was arrested. Sometimes those who accompany the bomber actually detonate the bomb remotely, but that was not how it worked in Noor's case.
"So I was sentenced to seven years in prison," she said. "One and a half are done."
In fact, Iraq's prisons, those maintained by the Iraqi government and the detainee camps that the United States has run since 2003, may be the source of future suicide bombers.
The worst abuses — like those that occurred in Abu Ghraib — may have largely been curtailed.
But many Sunnis believe that prisoners are still abused and that makes the prisoners easy recruits for the insurgency.
"The prisons are only incubating these people," said Selim Abdullah, spokesman for the Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament. Speaking in Arabic, he said, "An innocent person who enters prison for three years without knowing why he is there will be an easy tool for them. When he gets released, he becomes one of those who follow the criminal path."
Hundreds of bombers have already sacrificed their lives in suicide attacks in Iraq. Yet it seems that the supply of future suicide bombers gets larger and larger all of the time.