So how do average Iraqis regard these phantoms who suddenly appear to transform sidewalks, shops, and even public buses into bloodbaths? Mostly, they view them as so incomprehensible that they label them all foreigners, saying Iraq itself has no tradition of such perverse actions.
But not everyone on the street agrees with that easy explanation. There are also people who regard the suicide bombers themselves as victims -- as simple individuals who have been brainwashed to destroy themselves and others.
Ahmad, a restaurant owner in central Baghdad, says that he regards the suicide bomber "as a criminal, and I imagine him as being a simpleton who has been subjected to some form of brainwashing. He is a simple person."
Ahmad says the Iraqi street itself now provides the conditions of despair and ignorance that he says breeds suicide bombers, and he offers a story to support his view.
claiming that this is a humanitarian act that would lead to having
lunch with the Prophet, and that this act will be credited to you and
you will enter heaven...that is the real crime."
"Yesterday I saw an incident here near the restaurant. A 10-year-old child came along and asked for some sandwiches, but it seemed he was pulling my leg, so I turned him away. He went over to that patch of grass over there and began eating it. All these people are witnesses: he was pulling up leaves and eating them. So we called him back and gave him a sandwich," Ahmad says.
"Any security agency -- whether Shi'ite or Sunni, let's be frank when we speak --would not discount the possibility that he might have his mind filled with talk about heaven and hell," he continues. "He's a simple person; whatever you say to him, he will accept. This is a child, a blank page, ready to accommodate anything you tell him."
Clerics At Fault?
Many Iraqis of all classes say extreme religious views are responsible for creating suicide bombers and for spreading the suicide culture in Iraqi society. But people differ over who to blame.
There are those, such as Ass'ad, a civil engineer, who lay the blame exclusively on clerics.
"This is the ultimate crime," says Ass'ad. "You know those who call for jihad and so on? This is brainwashing. The sheikhs and the Islamists who are brainwashing this or that person, claiming that this is a humanitarian act that would lead to having lunch with the Prophet, and that this act will be credited to you and you will enter heaven...that is the real crime."
...Or Misreading Of Texts?
Others, like journalist-writer Ali al-Maliki, say the problem lies in the multiple interpretations that can be given to religious texts by extremists.
He says this includes "Islamic texts, relevant to the concept of jihad and the acceptance or nonacceptance of others, and the violence implied in the texts, [as well as] demands from adherents for actions that please God."
Mudhhir al-Alusi, a specialist in Islamic studies, also sees the problem as improper interpretation of texts.
"The cause is the difference in the concept of Islam among Muslims," he says. "There are Muslims who attribute to the word God or Allah a meaning that is different to mine or that of others. And the meaning of Muhammad is similarly different. Therefore, jihad may have more than one meaning."
An Iraqi researcher who prefers not to give his name says improper reading of religious texts leads to "great mistakes."
"The wrong reading of anything creates a negative situation; even when you read a story with a negative attitude, that will generate a negative condition within you," the researcher says. "And when you read the Koran, the religious texts, the sayings of the Prophet and the caliphs, and others, and you understand them in a mistaken manner, that would all lead you to the 'great mistake' zone."
To cope with suicide bombers, Baghdad police frequently declare curfews, particularly ahead of religious festivals.
Memories in the capital are still fresh of the death of nearly 1,000 Shi'ite pilgrims in a stampede during a religious ceremony in 2005. The stampede began when a crowd heading toward a shrine was panicked by rumors of a suicide bomber.
The incident remains the greatest loss of Iraqi life in a single event since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
(Hassan Rashid is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq based in Baghdad.)
Khamail Muhsin Khalaf
DEDICATED JOURNALIST: On April 5, the worst fears of the family and acquaintances of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Khamail Muhsin Khalaf were realized when her body was recovered not far from her Baghdad home.
News of Khamail's death at the hands of her abductors elicited outrage and sorrow, and a vow by Iraq's Interior Ministry to bring to justice the killers of a woman who had "served Iraq for more than 30 years."
Khamail's husband, Muhammad, cited his late wife and mother of their three children's dedication to her work: "Even when she was ill, even when she was facing hard situations, even when she had family or social problems, her duty and attendance at work were most important."
Khamail's mother described the difficulty that authorities encountered even retrieving her daughter's body: "The police said that when commandos tried to clear the body from the street, gunmen were awaiting them and a shootout took place. The police commandos succeeded in clearing the body to Al-Yarmuk Hospital. I, her brother and his wife, and her uncles, we buried her, and here we are mourning her."