BAGHDAD, Nov. 15, 2007 -- Today's brutal murder of the headmistress of an all-girls high school in northwest Baghdad is sparking new fears that women are again being targeted by religious extremists in Iraq.
Police found the body of Suad Kokaz, head of the Amil High School for Girls, outside her home in the relatively safe Shiite area of Kadhimiyah. She was ambushed by gunmen after leaving her home for work, according to police.
Amil High School has become a haven for Shiite Muslim students fleeing with their families from the religious segregation that has pulled apart many of Baghdad's neighborhoods since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Police tell ABC News that they are still searching for a motive in the attack.
The murder is the second in as many weeks of a Baghdad schoolteacher. Last week authorities found the body of a woman teacher not far from her school in the Al-Saydiyah area in southeast Baghdad. Both killings are raising concerns among law enforcement officials that extremists are stepping up attacks against women.
Police in the southern city of Basra report a sharp increase in attacks on women, with more than 40 killed between July and September, according to Maj. Gen. Abdul Jalil Khalaf, Basra's chief of police.
Khalaf told ABC News that dozens of women are threatened and intimidated each month, mostly by self-styled enforcers of religious law who target females who wear Western clothes or appear in public without head scarves. Khalaf, who was sent to Basra earlier this year by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to impose order in the city, says police are often too scared to conduct proper investigations into the killings.
"These people are simply acting as gangs," Khalaf told ABC News. "This kind of violence cannot be tolerated."
Before the invasion, Iraqi women had rights enshrined in the country's constitution since 1959 that were among the broadest of any Arab or Islamic nation. The new constitution says that women are equal under the law; critics, however, have condemned a provision that says no law can contradict the "established rulings" of Islam as weakening women's rights.
The vigilantes patrol the streets of some cities on motorbikes or in cars with dark-tinted windows and no license plates. They accost or harass women who aren't wearing the traditional robe and head scarf known as the hijab. Religious extremists also have been known to attack men for clothes or even haircuts deemed too Western.
Though Basra is populated mostly by Shiite Muslims, with minimal sectarian violence, security has deteriorated as Shiite militias have fought each other for power. British troops in the area pulled out last month. Khalaf says the violence against women is also helping to displace members of religious minorities in the area.
Amal Mohamad, a headmistress at an elementary school in Karradah, in central Baghdad, called the killings "shocking and very sad." But she says she won't be intimidated by the violence.
"We go out all of the time and will not let this frighten us," she told ABC News today. "We must challenge this fear and not let these attacks change our lives. We cannot let them change our lives."
Iraqi schools have been plagued by violence before. Many schools in Baghdad were shut down in 2006 at the height of the country's civil strife, with some teachers targeted by extremist groups. University professors also have been regularly targeted by militants and criminal gangs since the 2003 invasion.
Last month gunmen killed a schoolteacher on her way to class in the well-to-do Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour. And earlier this year several militants stormed a primary school in the Sadiya neighborhood of south Baghdad and killed the headmistress in front of her students.
Elsewhere in Iraq today, U.S. forces killed 25 suspected insurgents in operations targeting al Qaeda near Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It was the latest in a series of operations mounted against al Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. commanders say has been seriously weakened since the launch of a new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy to deny the militants safe haven in provinces around Baghdad.
The suspected al Qaeda insurgents were killed during operations west of Tarmiya near Baghdad, according to a U.S. military statement. The statement said U.S. forces called in aircraft to attack armed men seen acting with "hostile intent" in the area of the operation. One gunman was killed.
Ground forces then moved further into the area, where they came under fire. Troops again called in aircraft, killing 24 suspected insurgents, the statement said, adding that a large cache of weapons was found. U.S. commanders say al Qaeda in Iraq is resilient despite the recent military gains against the group.
Also in Iraq, north of the capital in Kirkuk, a car bomb targeting the convoy of a police colonel killed six people, including one police officer, according to police. Seventeen people, including children on their way to school, were wounded, police say. The wounded were rushed to a nearby hospital.