View Full Version : Suicide Attacker a Heroine to Frustrated Iraqis

05-29-03, 06:35 AM
Suicide Attacker a Heroine to Frustrated Iraqis
In City That War Barely Touched, Residents Revere Woman Who Threw Grenade at U.S. Troops

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2003; Page A12

BAQUBA, Iraq, May 27 -- Drifting through the afternoon heat shrouded in black, Eman Mutlag Salih paced by several times, shopkeepers recalled, and she looked nervous. She passed down one side of the street, past the children congregated outside the U.S. Army post, they said, then across to repeat the loop a third, fourth and fifth time.

"We suspected something strange because of the way she was walking," said Zuhair Mahmood Ahmed, who owns a tiny portrait photography studio between two former government buildings occupied by U.S. troops. "We thought maybe she had something to say to the Americans, but here we really don't accept women talking to the Americans. So we didn't know what was happening."

Then she strode toward the smaller of the two U.S.-occupied buildings, dipping into her small nylon shopping bag, witnesses said. She withdrew a grenade, they said, and tossed it at a small group of U.S. troops standing less than 20 feet sway. Moments later, after pulling out a second grenade despite shouts from U.S. troops to lie down, she died in a hail of bullets. Soldiers covered the body, bleeding into the ground from 10 bullet wounds, as a bewildered crowd looked on.

Salih's death at the hands of U.S. soldiers on Sunday might have been just one incident in one town in postwar Iraq. But the end to her short, puzzling life reflected a broader unrest alive in the country nearly seven weeks into the U.S. occupation. It has also made her a heroine among the men and women of Baquba, a role model in the city's hostile mosques, and a worry for U.S. forces trying to tame this still mostly defiant area 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Salih traveled to her death from the village of Zaghanya, 10 miles northeast of here, so many in the crowd that day had never seen her before she sprawled dead before them. Feelings of astonishment have given way to pride over what even the men here described as the courage that Salih, only 23 and a woman in a man's world, displayed in the face of a potent occupying army.

The legions of suicide bombers that former president Saddam Hussein's government predicted would menace invading U.S. troops have not materialized, at least not yet. The tactic was employed at least once during the invasion, when a taxi loaded with explosives killed four U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint in Najaf. But in the war's aftermath, Iraqis opposing U.S. troops here have had more success launching guerrilla-style attacks, such as the one today in Fallujah, where Iraqis armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades attacked an Army checkpoint, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding nine.

But rising frustration among millions of Iraqis over the U.S. occupation is beginning to produce the desperate foot soldiers of resistance like Salih, who left her father a brief letter the day she died that bluntly stated her intention: "I will be martyred for the sake of Islam," she wrote.

The war barely touched Baquba, set among date palms and marshes, but its aftermath has shaken it. As in most other places in Iraq, Hussein's ruling Baath Party exercised enormous power here, deciding everything from civil service jobs to how much shopkeepers would "donate" to rebuild politically important mosques. Sunni Muslim sheiks returned the favor by celebrating Hussein and his rule.

Those people have lost power to the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, responsible for the city of 500,000 and its surrounding villages. But Baquba is still without clean running water and power. And gunfire still crackles in the night, despite a curfew imposed by U.S. forces.

The Sikek neighborhood consists of narrow dirt alleys, walled mud-brick homes and a maze of open sewers reeking in the midday sun. It sits behind the burned-out former government building where Salih made her attack, and many of its disenchanted residents watched her die that day with something approaching awe.

"You must expect more of this," said Amar, a 20-year-old student at Baquba's Technical Institute who declined to give his last name, fearing U.S. reprisals. "This is the Iraqis."

Along Sikek's alleys, Salih was unknown. But word spread quickly -- and incorrectly -- that she was related to a young member of a Shiite militia killed by U.S. troops the previous week. Hashim Trafir, 19, worked as a guard at the local headquarters of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. People here say he was also a member of the Badr Brigade, the religious party's military arm.

Trafir was shot 14 times, all in the back, according to the pathologist who performed the autopsy. His funeral drew a crowd of 3,000 chanting, angry mourners and was broadcast on the Arabic-language news network Al-Jazeera.

"When you shoot at American forces you are going to be shot back at," said Capt. Josh Felker, the public affairs officer for the division's 2nd Brigade, who said he is weighing Salih's death for implications it might have on his outreach programs.

The public aftermath of Salih's death has been quieter. Baquba is populated predominantly by Sunni Muslims, though villages like Salih's surrounding the city have majority Shiite populations. In any case, she died far from her village and did not have a political party to mobilize supporters for a funeral. And although Shiites suffered under Hussein's Sunni-dominated government, here in Baquba the two wings of Islam appear to have largely united against the U.S. presence.

Still, no one is certain why Mutlag attacked U.S. troops in what amounted to a suicide mission.

Nasir Kadum Jawad, who performed the autopsy, said Mutlag's father told him she might have been mentally disturbed before the invasion and had grown increasingly despondent with the arrival of U.S. troops. But whatever her motives, this city and her own village view her as a martyr.

"She was brave and she will be our hero," said Ayad Mohammed, a 37-year-old employee at Baquba's tourist bureau. "We wanted to demonstrate. But we were afraid the Americans would kill us."

Most likely traveling by small public bus, Mutlag would have passed the graveyard of raised tombs on her way from the village, winding beside a small canal where children leap from makeshift crossings into green water. She wore a black abaya, a traditional head-to-toe garment, and a head scarf underneath.

Her family buried her today in a small, private ceremony. They have told neighbors that she died during an operation to remove her appendix, although everyone within miles appears to know the real circumstances.

"If a woman did this, then why not a man?" said Thamer Salman, 30 and unemployed in Zaghanya. "We are very proud of her. These are very bad circumstances in our country right now."

There is no electricity in Zaghanya, where water now comes out of taps heavy with sediment. There are more people with Salman's bleak job prospects than not, and people are demanding that U.S. forces quickly alleviate the poverty.

"This was why she did it," said Rafaat Hubi Ahmed, a 50-year-old orange farmer. "She wanted an end to these problems, and mostly the Americans out of Iraq."

No one really knows why Mutlag undertook her attack. But in Baquba's mosques, which have denounced the U.S. occupation for weeks, the sheiks see opportunity in her story.

At the Al-Zaitooni Mosque, Sheik Raad Anbagi's face broadens into a large smile when asked whether Mutlag's death will be discussed during his Friday prayer services.

"There is no doubt we will mention her, and no doubt she is a symbol for all Iraqi women and men," Anbagi said. "Most women here have been thinking about this case. They will inspire their husbands and sons to do something. Men should be doing this before women."

2003 The Washington Post Company