BAGHDAD, Iraq – A 12-year-old, his left leg missing below the knee, sat screaming on the sidewalk in a howling sandstorm as a man offered comfort. Laith Falah was buying bread just after daybreak Thursday when he was wounded by one of eight car bombs that struck the capital since dusk – a furious pace all too familiar in today’s Iraq.
Falah was lucky to be alive; 38 others were killed by the attacks over the 12-hour period.
Car bombers have struck Iraq 479 times in the past year, and a third of the attacks followed the naming of a new Iraqi government two months ago, according to an Associated Press count based on reports from police, military and hospital officials.
The unrelenting attacks, using bombs that can cost as little as a carton of American cigarettes each, have become the most-favored weapon of the government’s most-determined enemies – Islamic extremists.
The toll has been tremendous, according to the AP count: From April 28 through June 23, there were at least 160 vehicle bombings that killed at least 580 people and wounded at least 1,734.
In total, for the year from the handover of sovereignty on June 28, 2004, until June 23, 2005, there were at least 479 car bombs, killing 2,174 people and wounding 5,520.
Altogether, the AP count shows that insurgents have killed at least 1,245 people since the government of new Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari took over April 28.
Last month was the most violent for Iraqi civilians since the U.S.-led invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power in March 2003, said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq.
There were 77 car bombs in May, killing 317 people and wounding 896.
“The terrorists attack ordinary people, teachers, doctors, newly trained police and others who are assisting the people of Iraq,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
So far, a series of counterinsurgency sweeps by U.S. and Iraqi forces – both inside Baghdad and in turbulent Anbar province to the west – have not been able to slow the attackers’ pace appreciably.
Nevertheless, officials say they have recently gained valuable intelligence about how the car bombers operate.
As Iraqi and U.S. military officials went over plans for a recent sweep in Baghdad, they made a startling discovery: Rather than assembling car bombs outside the capital, insurgents were fitting the cars with explosives at workshops inside the city itself.
That discovery – from tips by residents – forced officials to scrap the idea of surrounding Baghdad with troops in an effort to control all 23 entrances to the city.
“This was based on the assumption that car bombs were loaded outside the city,” the prime minister recently told a small group of reporters.
Instead, al-Jaafari said, the planners of Operation Lighting, launched May 29, switched to an operation that also involved setting up checkpoints inside the city and carrying out street-by-street sweeps.
The tips also led to the discovery of large car bomb factories inside Baghdad. Security forces were stunned to discover that insurgents could rig a car with explosives in one hour or less, al-Jaafari said.
Building a car bomb is not hard in Iraq, which is flush with the materials needed to assemble them. Leftover stockpiles from what was once the world’s fourth-largest army supply the artillery shells and explosives for the actual bombs.
Getting a car is even easier, because no one asks for registration, a driver’s license or paperwork of any kind; only a couple thousand dollars in cash is required to buy one.
Hundreds of thousands of cheap, secondhand cars from Europe, the Persian Gulf region and Asia flooded into Iraq after the U.S.-led occupation of the country two years ago. Many are shipped to the Jordanian port of Aqaba and are then driven overland into Iraq on Jordanian tractor-trailer rigs.
A typical car bomb is usually a medium sized four-door sedan, usually of any make – although Baghdad residents are convinced that suicide bombers prefer Opels and BMWs. They usually have large artillery shells placed in the luggage compartment. Those high-explosive shells are then wired either to detonate when the car hits its target, or with a driver-activated electric switch, or with both.