BAGHDAD – The U.S. military announced the capture Saturday of an insurgent leader who was recruiting and training women, including his wife, to wrap themselves in explosives and blow themselves up — the latest sign that Al Qaeda in Iraq plans to keep using women to carry out homicide attacks.
In southern Iraq, a British airman was killed in a rocket attack on a base near Basra late Friday, said Capt. Finn Aldrich, a British military spokesman.
The U.S. military said it had killed six insurgents and detained 13 suspects Friday and Saturday during operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq in central and northern Iraq.
In another development, the military said Saturday it had captured a sniper instructor in Baghdad who had been trained by Iranians. Iran has in the past denied such claims.
On the eve of a visit here by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's state news agency reported that he rejected claims that Iran is fueling violence in Iraq.
"This is the temper of the Americans that they point fingers toward others wherever they are defeated ... instability, divisions and tensions in Iraq result from the occupiers," he said.
In the case of the suicide vests, the military said the man was arrested Thursday in an operation near the town of Kan Bani Sad, north of Baghdad in Diyala province — still an Al Qaeda hotbed.
"The ringleader was a man trying to recruit women to carry out SVEST (suicide vest) bombings. The cell leader used his wife and another woman, to act as carriers of his next SVEST attack," the military said.
Women have recently been used more frequently by Al Qaeda in Iraq as bombers, with six attacks or attempted attacks this year alone, according to U.S. military statistics. That's out of a total of 19 such attacks since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2003, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said in a recent briefing.
The latest included two women with a history of psychiatric treatment who killed about 100 people at pet markets in Baghdad on Feb. 1.
It remains unclear if Al Qaeda has begun using women because it has been unable to recruit new insurgents or because they are more difficult to detect.
The Iranian-trained sniper instructor was arrested along with three other men, and the military said he was also an expert in the use of bombs known as explosively formed penetrators that are designed to defeat the armor used in American military vehicles and tanks. Most of those bombs are designed and often built in neighboring Iran.
"He reportedly coordinated and facilitated Special Groups militia training in Iran on the use of explosively formed penetrators. Reports indicate he was an associate of several Special Groups criminal leaders involved in attacks on Iraqi and Coalition forces," the military said.
Special groups usually refer to Shiite extremists, mostly those that have broken away from radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
"Iraqi and Coalition forces will continue to target militia groups and criminals who commit hostile acts, dishonoring al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire pledge and undermining security and stability in Iraq," said Cmdr. Scott Rye, a military spokesman, referring to al-Sadr with an honorific title.
The cease-fire, recently extended by another six months, has been a key element in a three-piece puzzle that has come together to help reduce violence since mid-2007. The two other factors are the influx of thousands of U.S. troops last summer, and creation of Sunni-dominated groups funded by the U.S. military to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, the most extremist of the Sunni insurgents.
Although violence has declined by 60 percent in the past six months, attacks have not stopped. Homicide bombers and car bombs are mainly responsible for civilian deaths, while roadside bombs and Iranian-designed penetrators are used against the U.S. and Iraqi military.
At least 29 U.S. troops died while serving in Iraq in February, the third-lowest monthly casualty toll for the U.S. military since the American-led invasion in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Troop fatalities declined from 40 in January, and also dropped steeply from February 2007, when at least 81 troops died in Iraq.
Iraqi casualties were up compared with January, however, although violence was reduced substantially from a year ago.
The AP count revealed at least 739 Iraqi security forces and civilians were either killed or found dead last month, up from 610 in January. In February 2007, at least 1,801 Iraqis were killed.
The statistics on Iraqi casualties are considered a minimum, and are based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
There was violence in Iraq again on Saturday.
Police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir in Kirkuk said two separate attacks on buses of Shiites killed five people and wounded 11 on Saturday.
The first attack occurred near the town of Toz Khirmato, 110 miles northeast of Baghdad and killed two people, he said. The bus was coming from Mosul, he said.
The second attack was in the village of Udaim, 70 miles north of Baghdad and killed three others, Qadir said.