BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. Marines, including many women, were coming home to their base after a long day of duty at the checkpoints dotting Fallujah, a flashpoint city in Iraq’s most violent province. A suicide car bomber and gunmen were waiting for them.
The bomber rammed a car into one of the vehicles in the convoy. Then the gunmen opened fire.
In the end, two Marines were killed and another four American troops were presumed dead, the military said Friday. At least one woman was killed and 11 of 13 wounded were female.
The terror group al Qaeda in Iraq claimed it carried out the attack, one of the single deadliest against the Marines – and against women – in this country.
The high number of female casualties spoke to the lack of any real front lines in Iraq, where U.S. troops are battling a raging insurgency and American women soldiers have taken part in more close-quarters combat than in any previous military conflict.
Female Marines are used at checkpoints to search Muslim women “in order to be respectful of Iraqi cultural sensitivities,” a military statement said. It is considered insulting for a male Marine to search a female Muslim.
Current Pentagon policy prohibits women from serving in front line combat roles – in the infantry, armor or artillery, for example.
“It’s hard to stop suicide bombers, and it’s hard to stop these people that in many cases are being smuggled into Iraq from outside Iraq,” President Bush said at a joint White House news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
The Marines were returning to Camp Fallujah when the ambush took place Thursday night near the eastern entrance to the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Fallujah is a former insurgents’ fortress that was invaded by U.S. forces at great cost last November; it also is the city where an Iraqi mob hung the mutilated bodies of two U.S. contractors from a bridge. On Nov. 2, 2003, two female Army soldiers were in a Chinook helicopter shot down over Fallujah.
At least one of the dead Marines in Thursday’s attack was a woman. She was killed when the car bomber attacked the vehicle in which she was traveling.
The male Marine was killed by small-arms fire immediately afterward, the military said. His family identified him as Cpl. Chad Powell, 22, from northern Louisiana. Powell is survived by his parents, his wife and a 3-year-old son, Elijah.
The military did not provide the genders of the missing three Marines and a sailor who were believed to be in the vehicle that was attacked. They were presumed dead, said a U.S. military official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity because the victims have not been identified.
Thirty-six female troops have died since the war began, including the one that was announced Friday, said Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman. Thirty-four were Army, one Navy and one Marine.
Thursday’s suicide attack, which raised the death toll among U.S. military members since the beginning of the war to 1,732, came as Americans have grown increasingly concerned about a conflict that has shown no signs of abating. One year ago, 842 U.S. service members had died in Iraq, compared to 194 on that date in 2003.
The relentless carnage has killed more than 1,240 people since April 28, when al-Jaafari announced his Shiite-dominated government. With the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency targeting the Shiite majority, the wave of killings has slowly been pushing the country toward civil war.
In one such sectarian killing, gunmen on Friday killed an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric. Police said two bodyguards were also killed trying to protect Shiite cleric Samara al-Baghdadi, who represented al-Sistani in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite al-Amin district.
Iraqi security forces also discovered the bodies of eight beheaded men – at least six of whom were Shiite farmers – in a region north of Baghdad on Friday. It was unclear why the men were killed.
News of the Marine deaths came as Bush and al-Jaafari both pledged eventual victory over insurgents.
“The enemy’s goal is to drive us out of Iraq before the Iraqis have established a secure democratic government. They will not succeed,” Bush said.