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Potential Female Bombers Pose Security Challenge for Iraq Referendum


As predicted, violence ahead of Iraq's October 15 national referendum on the draft constitution is rising, with more than 110 people killed and as many wounded in car bombings since late Thursday. Wednesday's attack in Tal Afar, carried out by the first female suicide bomber in the two year-old insurgency, has prompted U.S. and Iraqi officials to review the security measures being planned for polling sites.

Even in a country, which has seen far more than its share of suicide bombings, Wednesday's attack at a military recruiting center in the northern city of Tal Afar was highly unusual.

A woman, disguised in an Arab man's robes and headdress, slipped into a line of Army recruits and detonated explosives strapped to her body. The blast killed at least six people and wounded 35 others.

The attack marked the first time that a woman succeeded in carrying out a suicide mission in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Al-Qaida in Iraq, the terrorist group which has claimed responsibility for most of the deadly suicide bombings here, called the female volunteer a "blessed sister."

The incident has raised considerable alarm for U.S. military and Iraqi security forces, who are working on measures to secure neighborhoods and some six-thousand designated polling sites throughout the country.

The commander of the U.S. Army's First Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, Colonel Jeffrey Snow, oversees a large area of western Baghdad, which is expected to have some 300 polling stations open on October 15.

Colonel Snow says he and his Iraqi Army counterpart have been trying to anticipate new tactics Al-Qaida in Iraq's leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may adopt to disrupt the referendum vote.

Wednesday's attack raised the prospect that one of those methods could involve women suicide bombers attempting to infiltrate polling stations.

He says that Zarqawi appears to be exploiting the fact that women are not usually body-searched at many outdoor security checkpoints. Muslim traditions dictate that women be searched only by other women, away from public view.

"We have recognized the threat," said Mr. Snow. "The threat is real. In this case, there is a plan in place. We're looking to make sure that there's some type of facility, either indoors or some type of tents set up so women can search women. Now, the challenge is to get the adequate number of women to do searches."

The Pentagon has announced that about 1,000 additional U.S. troops would be deployed and nearly 10,000 others kept in Iraq for an extra seven to 10 days to ensure that next month's vote, and national elections scheduled for December 15, proceed smoothly.

Top U.S. military leaders in Iraq say 190,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained, but only a small fraction can fight effectively without U.S. support.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has vowed to kill anyone who participated in the referendum vote. Last month, the Jordanian-born Sunni extremist went even further, declaring an all-out war to kill Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims.

During January parliamentary elections, Zarqawi, who opposes Iraq's political process because he believes it is un-Islamic, said that it carried out at least nine suicide bombings at or near polling sites. The violence killed more than two dozen people.

Al-Qaida's warning not to take part in elections prevented many Sunni Arabs from voting in the country's first democratic elections. But millions of Shi'ites defied the threat and voted, giving them an overwhelming majority in the new government.

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