BAGHDAD — Car bombs echo across Baghdad and a constellation of cities around Iraq nearly every day, inflicting slaughter and billowing oily smoke, a reminder to all who see or hear them that the country's insurgents can strike almost anywhere.
Vehicles packed with explosives, often detonated by suicide attackers, have become one of the insurgency's most lethal weapons. An Associated Press tally shows that there have been at least 181 since Iraq's interim government took over June 28 -- just a handful at first, but surging to a rate of one or more a day in recent months.
Those bombs killed about 1,000 people, both Iraqis and Americans, and wounded twice as many. The tally found that 68 bombings were suicide attacks and the rest were detonated by other means. Most involved cars, but some used trucks and even motorcycles.
Less common before June, car bombs have become part of a punishing psychological campaign that has made almost everyone here feel unsafe. They have been used to assassinate Iraqi leaders, attack troop and police convoys, penetrate U.S. armored vehicles being rushed to the country and, seemingly, simply to spread terror.
Although American officials say roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, are still the insurgents' favorite weapon, car bombs are often more powerful and usually exact a higher toll. The spike in recent months supports Defense Department statements that guerrillas are using more lethal explosives to target U.S. troops and intimidate Iraqis ahead of the Jan. 30 election.
"The insurgents have modified their tactics to address modifications the U.S. has made to protect its forces," said David L. Phillips, a former State Department expert on Iraq now with the Council on Foreign Relations, "because there's been a big push to get armored vehicles, hard-shelled vehicles on the road, and they are less susceptible to IEDs, whereas a car bomb still has greater payload."
The bombing total was compiled from AP's daily reports, based on government and police statements as well as information gathered by AP staff. No official statistics on such attacks have been released, and the number of incidents is almost certainly higher than reported.
The U.S. military and Iraqi government were asked for their figures but provided none.
According to the AP tally, there were two car bombs on the last day of June, 11 in July and 12 in August. The numbers surged in the following months, with 26 in September, 43 in October and 48 in November -- eight of them on a single day, Nov. 6. December saw 27 and January is averaging about one a day -- a dozen in the first 11 days.
Although news of car bombings has become tragically routine, their frequency is an enormous change. The Brookings Institution in Washington, which keeps track of suicide bombings and car bombs that kill two or more people, counted 84 such attacks in the 12 months through June.
Vehicle bombs in Iraq first gained worldwide attention Aug. 19, 2003, when a truck bomb blew up at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others. Soon afterward, the United Nations began withdrawing staff.
The worst car bombings are horrifying: 70 killed, 56 wounded in a July 28 explosion next to a line of police applicants; 42 dead, 35 of them children, in a Sept. 30 blast as U.S. troops handed out sweets in western Baghdad; 54 killed in a Dec. 19 explosion amid a funeral procession in Najaf.
"I'm always worried about my three daughters when they go to school every morning. I'm always tense and call my wife until they come back home," said Hazem Hassan, 30, a Health Ministry employee. "Car bombs make us stay at home and only go out for work or anything necessary."
Car bombs are a chief reason why, heading into Iraq's election, vehicles will not be allowed near polling stations, and people traveling between districts will need to have a separate accreditation for their cars.
As the bombings have progressed, more and more have involved suicide bombers, with almost all this month being suicide attacks.
That points to an increased involvement of foreign Islamic radicals in Iraq's insurgency, experts and Iraqi officials say. Former Saddam Hussein loyalists believed to be leading the insurgency are not the type who would lay down their lives to attack police checkpoints, they say.
There have also been at least three suicide bombings in Iraq since March that didn't involve vehicles -- one at a U.S. Army mess tent in Mosul on Dec. 21 that killed 22 people and a double suicide bombing in Baghdad's Green Zone in October that left 10 dead.