At least six Marines, three of them female, were killed after a suicide bomber rammed into their military vehicle Thursday night in Fallujah, Iraq, ABC News has confirmed.
The military said in a statement that two Marines were killed and 13 wounded, 11 of them women. If confirmed, it would be the largest one-day casualty count for women serving in the military since the start of the war in Iraq.
In addition, three Marines and a sailor believed to be in the vehicle are currently missing, according to the statement.
The open, seven-ton armored truck was ferrying members of a U.S. military civil affairs team to perform checkpoint searches 40 miles west of Baghdad, according to officials. Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad in the Anbar province, was the site of violent fighting last November as U.S. troops attempted to oust militants.
It was to be a routine "swap out," or shift change, that included a high number of women because of the need to have females search women travelers at checkpoints.
The majority of the fatalities were Marines assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp LeJeune, N.C., according to 2nd Lt. Barry Edwards. They were assigned to Camp Fallujah.
At least 1,730 members of the U.S. military have died since the war began in March 2003, with 44 women among the casualties.
While every servicemember's death, regardless of gender, is a loss, targeting female troops may be the latest attempt to shock and destabilize U.S. forces. It was not clear whether this was an intentional attack on female troops, but many recent suicide attacks have targeted civilians, including women and children.
Bomb to Shock
Car bombers have struck Iraq 480 times in the past year with a third of the attacks occurring in the last two months, according to an Associated Press count based on reports from police, military and hospital officials.
"They would like to force out the occupiers," Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Terror in the Name of God," said on ABC's "Nightline" on May 22.
"Their goal is to impose such heavy costs on the United States that we just can't stand it anymore," Stern said.
Women in Combat
Despite rules that have prohibited women from fighting on the front lines, female servicemembers have found themselves in combat zones. Not only has the nature of missions in Iraq changed but leaner fighting forces have forced the military to adapt, which means female troops are part of combat support units. And in modern warfare, there is typically no clearly defined front.
"Female Marines play a vital role providing security at the entry control points in the city," the military statement said. "They search female Iraqi citizens moving through the checkpoints. Female Marines are employed in this role in order to be respectful of Iraqi cultural sensitivities."
Last month, the House Armed Services Committee debated limiting the role of women in combat. Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., had initiated a wide-ranging restriction that would have required an act of Congress to open up new positions to women in combat zones.
But the House approved, on a 428-1 vote, a watered-down provision that lets the Pentagon continue to determine military jobs for women as long as it gives Congress 60 days notice, twice as much time as is currently required.
As of the end of May, there were 2,823 military occupations open to women, including Army jobs in which women provide medical, maintenance and logistics support to units in combat zones, according to the AP. Nearly 200 of those positions are closed because of the Pentagon policy that bars women from joining the ranks of the special forces.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, of the 1.1 million troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan at least 119,000 of them are women.
Asked about women in the military at the House Armed Services Committee meeting Thursday, Gen. George Casey reiterated women's important role in the military. "We couldn't do what we do without them."
He added that he didn't see "any need to change any of the policies and procedures."
In the United States, public support of the war seems to be waning. According to the latest ABC Poll, given the costs versus the opportunities in the Iraqi war, 58 percent said the war was not worth fighting. This is a new high and could keep climbing if casualties continue to rise.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that he thinks public opinion is being "pushed" by a drumbeat of unflattering coverage of the war.
As the violence rages on, the Bush administration still has not set a date for withdrawing from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari today said that the U.S.-led multinational force must stay in Iraq until Iraqi forces are fully prepared to defend the country by themselves.
Bush agreed to fight on but critics warn that with military recruitment down, finding troops regardless of gender will be more and more difficult in the coming months.