BAGHDAD (AFP) — "Twisted" Al-Qaeda jihadists used two mentally impaired women as unwitting bombers in Baghdad pet markets because they were less likely to be searched, a US general claimed on Saturday, as the death toll from the twin attacks hit 98.
Major General Jeffery Hammond, commander of US forces in Baghdad, told a news conference that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was using "its twisted ideology to spread fear in the hearts of people."
He spoke as Iraqi security officials said the combined toll from Friday's two bomb attacks had risen to 98 dead and 208 wounded, from 64 killed and 107 wounded reported on Friday. They could not give a breakdown of the tolls from the two attacks.
The blasts were the deadliest in Baghdad since last August 1, when three car bombs killed more than 80 people.
Hammond said both bombers were women and closely resembled each other, adding: "There are indications they were mentally handicapped."
"They were used by Al-Qaeda because they were less likely to know what was happening," Hammond said. "They were less likely to be searched."
Police said the first bomb struck the popular Al-Ghazl pet market in central Baghdad at around 10 am (0700 GMT) on Friday as hundreds of people were out enjoying the Muslim day of rest.
The second explosion a short time later rocked a pet market in the Baghdad Al-Jadida neighbourhood, which was also crowded.
A top Iraqi official said on Friday the explosives had been strapped to two mentally impaired women and then triggered by remote control in co-ordinated blasts.
"Both women were mentally impaired. They were wearing belts containing 15 kilogrammes (33 pounds) of explosives," Major General Qasim Ata, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, told AFP on Friday.
"The explosives were detonated by remote control," he said of the blasts which occurred within 20 minutes of each other.
But Hammond was unable to confirm that the bombs had been set off remotely.
"We have no indications that it was so. We have no idea how the (explosives) were detonated," he told AFP.
The woman used in the Al-Ghazl market had been carrying a backpack, while the other had arrived at the market wearing a suicide vest.
General Abud Qanbar Hashim, Iraqi commander of Baghdad Operations Command, on Saturday accused Al-Qaeda leaders of using mentally handicapped children and adults to do their "dirty work".
He was sure, he said, that the women were mentally impaired and that their features indicated they were suffering Down's Syndrome.
"We have pictures. They looked alike. They had Mongoloid features. We have very credible information," said Hashim, adding that it was too early to tell, however, if the bombers were related.
The women, he added, had likely been kidnapped and were unaware they were being sent to their deaths.
People suffering Down's Syndrome are regarded in Islam as without sin and therefore when they die they will go straight to paradise.
"Al-Qaeda have used children in the past," Hashim claimed. "They use any inhuman methods to do their dirty work."
Both generals said Friday's bombings were a direct response by Al-Qaeda to their being pushed out of Baghdad and surrounding belts by an extensive security plan launched in February last year, known as Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Imposing Law).
"Al-Qaeda is desperate. This is why they attack innocent people like this," said Hashim.
Hammond was adamant that Iraqi and US forces had won the battle for control of the capital, despite setbacks such as the market bombings.
"We knew we would have bad days at some points along the way. Yesterday was a bad day. Suicide vests represent the very worst of human nature," Hammond said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a statement on Saturday saying recent security successes had "annoyed those with sick and corrupt minds so they committed... two ugly terrorist crimes which left many innocents dead."
He said such attacks would only increase the Iraqi military's persistence in restoring security to the violence-ravaged country.
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