We need one more sentence, please

overhead abaya ha31Another day, another bomb and 43 more deaths. And this time there seem to be serious questions about what precisely happened near the Imam Hussein shrine in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, which is located inside one of the tightest security zones in post-surge Iraq. Here is the crucial passage from the New York Times report by Richard A. Oppel, Jr., and Qais Mizher:

In the aftermath of the attack, a dispute broke out about what had happened. Several witnesses and Iraqi policemen said the attack was by a female suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest. An American military statement also later attributed the bombing to a suicide attacker.

But hours after the bombing the Karbala police chief, Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat, asserted that the explosion was from a large bomb that had been hidden in the area. He also told reporters in Karbala that he believed that the bomb was made in the city. The conflicting versions could not be reconciled.

Reading between the lines, a careful reader is going to want an answer to an obvious question: How did one or more terrorists get a bomb inside such a tight security zone? Weren't there checkpoints around the perimeter to stop this from happening? What went wrong?

This is where the Times -- to its credit -- dared to include one more detail that takes the reader inside the scene. Why do I say "dared"? Because the crucial detail concerns religion.

The number of female suicide bombers has increased recently, facilitated by Muslim customs that do not allow men to touch women, so they usually cannot be searched at security checkpoints. In a religious center like Karbala, most women wear a flowing head-to-toe black overgarment, known as an abaya, which provides an easy way to conceal an explosive vest or belt.

My only question concerns that safe, vague word "customs."

Look at it this way. If you walked up to devout Muslims in Karbala and asked them about the origins of the abaya, I doubt that they would say that they are following local "customs." I think that it is more likely that they would say this is part of Islamic traditions or even their community's understanding of Sharia law.

This is where one more sentence, one more quote, would offer crucial insight into what is happening. After all, people are dying. Can women search women? What does Islamic law actually say? What passage in the Koran is at the heart of this debate, if there are Muslims who -- obviously -- reject this "custom" while others insist that it has great authority?

We need one or two more sentences. Please.

One more note about this gripping story. It ends with this reference: "An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Karbala." Does this anonymous reference mean that it has, literally, become too dangerous to print the name of this journalist? Chilling.

Photo: From the Essence of Black website.

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