A U.S. commander in heavily Shi'ite south-central Iraq says he is watching for female suicide bombers linked to al-Qaida as he helps Iraqi forces provide security for the Shi'ite commemoration of Ashura, which begins Tuesday evening. The commander spoke after a female bomber killed 40 people outside a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad on Sunday.
Speaking from Iraq, Colonel Butch Kievenaar said he has received information indicating that al-Qaida might try to send women into his area as suicide bombers in an effort to disrupt the holiday.
"There is some limited reporting of possible female suicide bombers that would try to target Ashura in both the Najaf Province and the northern portion of the Babil Province," said Colonel Kievenaar.
Colonel Kievenaar commands coalition forces in an area south of Baghdad that is 90 percent Shi'ite and includes the city of Karbala - the center of the Ashura holiday. The colonel says there have been 39 suicide bombings by women in Iraq during the past year, with links to the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida.
"That means that there is a capability out there," he said. "Though not as capable as they used to be, they are still capable of causing a spectacular event to occur."
But Colonel Kievenaar says Iraqi forces have had the lead in providing security in his area for months, a situation that was extended to the entire country on January 1, when the new Iraqi-U.S. security agreement took effect. He says U.S. troops have been training the Iraqis in security procedures to prepare for the Ashura holiday, including techniques focused on preventing suicide bombings by women.
"We have been working closely with our Iraqi security forces in developing plans, teaching them search techniques and establishing a security plan to try to prevent that from occurring," Colonel Kievenaar said. "And any information that we do get, we rapidly transition over to them."
Colonel Kievenaar says he does not foresee any security problems after his troops withdraw from four outposts in Iraqi cities in his area in June, as required by the new agreement. He says U.S. forces will continue to go on patrol with Iraqi troops, but that American troops will no longer live in the cities. The creation of the joint urban outposts during the past two years has been credited with helping improve security throughout the country.