Sisterhood of stealth: female suicide bombers, and even husband-and-wife teams, in Iraq are insurgency's new stealth weapon.

Author:Blanche, Ed

THE BLOODBATH IN IRAQ PASSED A chilling milestone on 9 November when a Belgian woman who converted to Islam blew herself up in a suicide bomb attack on a US military convoy on the northern outskirts of Baghdad to become the world's first European female suicide bomber. Although she killed only herself, her actions added a deadly new dimension to the jihad being waged by Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers in the Middle East and Asia, and one which many western security services fear may soon engulf Europe.

The Belgian woman, identified as Mureille Degauque, aged 38, was traced through a recently issued Belgian passport she had carried, presumably to help her get past security checkpoints. According to Belgian authorities, the former bakery assistant came from a middle-class family in Charleroi, in the industrial belt south of Brussels. She converted to Islam after marrying a Belgian of Moroccan descent who became a militant and took her to Iraq to join the insurgency. The couple was among scores, possibly hundreds, of Muslims from Europe who have gone to Iraq to fight the US-led coalition.

Both appeared to have volunteered for suicide missions. A few days after Mureille blew herself up, US authorities in Baghdad said her husband was killed in a US Special Forces assault on a safe house run by a faction of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the group blamed for most of the suicide attacks in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. He was wearing an explosives-rigged waistcoat when he and four companions were killed.

The use of a European woman by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which is led by the infamous Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian-Palestinian and the most wanted insurgent leader in Iraq, may have unveiled a new tactic by the jihadists who, like other militant groups, Muslim and non-Muslim, have been recruiting a growing number of women for suicide bombing missions. Some clearly volunteered for "martyrdom," while others may have been manipulated or duped.

But the use of female terrorists such as the notorious Black Widows of war-torn Chechnya, mostly women seeking revenge against the Russians for the death of loved ones or mass rapes, is spreading. According to US analyst Mia Bloom, who conducted an analysis of suicide bombings in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and Iraq, 34% of such attacks since 1985 have been carried out by women.

Mureille and her partner may have marked another milestone in the annals...

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