BAGHDAD - Bombs strapped to two mentally disabled women tore through two popular pet markets here yesterday, killing at least 91 people in the worst violence to hit Baghdad since a US troop buildup reached its peak in July.
The apparently coordinated attacks, which occurred within 10 minutes of each other, were reminiscent of large-scale suicide bombings before the troop surge and underscored what US military officials have warned are the shifting tactics of insurgents.
Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi, Iraq's chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said the women had Down syndrome and might not have known they were on suicide missions, the Associated Press reported. Moussawi also said the bombs were detonated by remote control, but he gave no details on the evidence.
Early today, Iraqi officials raised the death toll in the two market attacks to 91 from 73, according to the AP, but they were unable to immediately provide a casualty breakdown in the two bombings. More than 100 people were wounded, officials said.
The blasts were the deadliest in the capital since an April 18 suicide car bombing that killed 116 and wounded 145. The US buildup of an additional 30,000 soldiers in Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq began in February, but did not reach full strength until the summer.
The first bomb was detonated about 10:20 a.m. in the central Ghazl pet market, which is open on Fridays and sells an array of pets, including dogs, monkeys, pigeons, parrots, and tropical fish.
Minutes later, a blast rocked a smaller market specializing in birds in New Baghdad in the southeastern part of the city.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the bombings prove Al Qaeda is "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements" and will strengthen Iraqi resolve to reject terrorism.
American and Iraqi officials say the use of women with suicide vests is a sign that insurgents loyal to the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq are struggling to recruit Iraqi men and are also finding it increasingly difficult to maneuver large vehicle-borne bombs past checkpoints.
Hence, they say, insurgents have been forced to resort to other types of attacks, such as the targeting of volunteer security workers who form the backbone of US efforts to bolster American and Iraqi forces.
Since November, at least six women have been used to carry explosives that killed themselves and others, including those in yesterday's attacks.
The increased use of suicide vests is highlighted in the US military's latest statistics on Iraq's violence. In October, six such bombings were recorded. The number increased to eight in November, 10 in December, and 15 in January. Vehicle-borne bombings fell each month, from 45 in October to 24 in January through the 25th, the last date included in the military report.
US military and Iraqi officials note that overall attack and civilian casualty numbers are at their lowest levels since the spring of 2005. But they refer to the state of security as "tenuous" and offer statistics that look good compared with a few months ago but that offer no guarantees.
The situation in Iraq could turn around again if political progress to ease tensions between Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites is not enacted by the Iraqi government, according to analysts and military commanders on the scene.
"I am indeed optimistic, but at the same time I'm realistic. This place could go back," said Major General Rick Lynch, who commands US forces in the strategic belts south of Baghdad.
Other factors most commonly cited as having the potential to derail security gains are a premature drawdown of US forces and impatience by Sunni security volunteers who have allied themselves with US and Iraqi forces but who increasingly are targeted by Sunni insurgents. Many such volunteers once supported the insurgency.
"We are essentially hanging in the balance," said Aseel Abdullah, a Baghdad accountant. When asked to rate security on a scale of 1 to 10, he gave it a 5 and said it would not improve until the country's political leaders improve life for Iraqis.
"People can only take so much, and sooner or later they will decide they have had enough and revert back to violence," he said.
Yesterday's violence was a reminder of what that would be like for Baghdad residents, who in recent months have begun to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle as attacks decline. Nightly curfews have been relaxed, and the one that once kept vehicles off the streets on Fridays, the Muslim day off, has been lifted.
The Ghazl market is a favorite place to spend Fridays. It also is a favorite target of insurgents looking to inflict high casualties. This was the second bombing there since late November and the fifth since June 2006.
Ahmed Jimaa Badr, 30, was at the market yesterday against the wishes of his wife and parents, who felt that security was too shaky to venture to the bazaar. But Badr, whose hobby is raising pigeons, wanted to buy some birds. He chose four and then entered a pigeon specialist's shop to ensure that one of the birds was a male, for breeding purposes.
"When the man was examining the bird, a very huge explosion rocked the area," Badr said. The shop windows shattered, and the bird flew away. "I saw white smoke and a hill of bodies, and a lot of animals."
The heat from the blast sent the temperature inside the little shop soaring, "as if it is July," said Badr, who helped take wounded people to hospitals.
The second attack yesterday wounded a 17-year-old named Haider, who said his life was saved by bird seed sacks that stopped the flying shrapnel.
Haider, who gave only his first name, said he was about 120 feet from the blast.
"Birds scattered here and there. A great ball of fire came out of the place where the explosion was," he said.
Moussawi said both bombs were carried by women, but another police official said the second blast was from a bomb hidden in a box of eggs.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.