Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Middle East

Death behind the wheel in Iraq
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The US military offensive to recapture control over Fallujah is likely to be a drawn-out affair. While the insurgents might not stand and fight the American ground troops - they can be expected, like all guerrillas to melt away and return to fight another day - they are likely to inflict maximum damage on American soldiers. According to media reports, even as bombs and shells rain on Fallujah, hundreds of suicide bombers are preparing to welcome US Marines and Iraqi forces advancing into the city.

According to a report in the Times of London, about 300 foreign fighters have volunteered as suicide bombers to defend Fallujah. Citing an insurgent commander, the report says that "some [of the suicide bombers] would be used in 118 vehicles already rigged with explosives, others would be waiting in booby-trapped homes for American and Iraqi soldiers hunting from house to house for [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi's fighters."

Suicide bombings have emerged as an important weapon in the arsenal of militant groups. Their attractiveness as a tactical weapon can be attributed to the fact that they are cost-effective, being low on investment and high on returns. The cost-effectiveness of suicide operations explains their increasing frequency and the expanding geographical area over which they are being mounted.

Iraq has been the scene of hundreds of suicide attacks since the US-led invasion of the country in March, 2003. Prior to the invasion, Iraq had never witnessed suicide attacks; the first Iraqi suicide attack came in the opening days of the war. An Iraqi bomber posing as a taxi driver approached a checkpoint north of Najaf and blew himself and his explosive-filled car up, killing four US soldiers. And in the 20 months since, the number of suicide attacks has spiraled. In fact, the number of people killed in suicide explosions in Iraq in less than two years is said to be far greater than the number of victims killed in suicide bombings in the last four years of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

It is interesting to note that successful suicide operations carried out by Palestinians have been followed by celebrations of the bombers' "martyrdom". Posters of each "martyr" appear on the walls of the Occupied Territories, announcements in newspapers read like wedding invitations, the bomber's family members take pride in public in the "martyrdom operation" of their kin and distribute sweets to celebrate.

What follows suicide operations in Iraq is a picture in contrast. There are no public celebrations of martyrdom, which could be because most suicide bombers are, as the US-led coalition claims, foreign fighters - Islamic radicals inspired by or with links to al-Qaeda. Since they do not have kin in Iraq, their deaths go unmarked. If the suicide bombers are indeed Iraqi, then the silence following an operation could be because locals, fearing American retaliation on the family, simply prefer to keep quiet and not celebrate publicly.

But for those suicide operations for which al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Unity and Holy War) has claimed responsibility, little is known about the identity of the suicide bombers and of those masterminding the missions. What is clear about the suicide bombings is their deadly impact - they have killed hundreds and caused immense terror among the occupation forces, the Iraqi forces as well as ordinary Iraqi people. They seem to have emerged as the coalition force's worst security nightmare.

Unlike the Palestinian suicide bombing experience, where human bombs - humans strapped with explosives - are deployed, in Iraq most suicide bombing operations involve humans ramming explosive-laden vehicles into their targets.

While it is true that Iraq has witnessed a large number of suicide bombings in a relatively short span of time, suicide bombings are not, as many media reports claim, the insurgents' weapon of choice. Car bomb explosions are far more frequent than suicide bombings. Insurgents in Iraq opt for car bombs because they are easier to assemble; all that is required is a vehicle and explosives, which can be put together quickly in response to changing intelligence on targets. Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices can slip through checkpoints easily as the explosive or bomb could be hidden under piles of vegetables or construction material.

Across Iraq and especially in Baghdad, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices are more commonly used by insurgents to target the occupation forces and destabilize the US-appointed Iraqi interim administration. Of the car bombings reported so far, over half the number were detonations set off by remote control, less than half being suicide bombings.

Yet the impression one gets from reading media reports is that it is suicide bombings that are the preferred weapon of the insurgents. This misrepresentation is partly because of lazy journalism - reporters do not ascertain the finer details of a blast and end up lumping together car bomb explosions with suicide bombers ramming explosive-laden vehicles. More worryingly, it could be the result of an attempt to create public revulsion towards the insurgents and their methods.

"Suicide terrorism" is a phenomenon that is far more controversial than the concept of terrorism itself. In addition to the controversy over the word "terrorism", Islam frowns on suicide. Insurgent groups that use suicide attacks therefore do not like their attacks to be described as suicide terrorism. They prefer to use terms like "martyrdom operations".

An insurgent attack, which might otherwise seem to the Iraqi people as a legitimate response to the US occupation, is more likely to get de-legitimized in the eyes of Muslims when it is labeled a suicide attack. Besides, the very idea that a human is blowing himself and others up in a manner that leaves little of the human body intact evokes deep revulsion.

The possibility that the occupation forces label car bomb blasts as suicide attacks with the aim of de-legitimizing the insurgency in the eyes of the Iraqi people and triggering in them revulsion for the insurgents cannot be ruled out. This not only explains the reported sharp increase in suicide attacks but also the fact that little is known about the identity of the suicide bombers.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher/writer based in Bangalore, India. She has a doctoral degree from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her areas of interest include terrorism, conflict zones and gender and conflict. Formerly an assistant editor at Deccan Herald (Bangalore) she now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Nov 12, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Suicide bombing: Theology of death (Oct 22, '04)

Killers turn to suicide (Oct 15, '04)
Squeegee men and suicide bombers (Sep 28, '04)

Youth become fodder for terror (Jun 16, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong