BAGHDAD — Suicide bombings have surged to become the Iraqi insurgency's weapon of choice, with a staggering 90 attacks accounting for most of last month's 750 deaths at the militants' hands.
Suicide attacks outpaced car bombings almost 2-to-1 in May, according to figures compiled by the U.S. military, The Times and other media outlets. In April, there were 69 suicide attacks, more than in the entire year preceding the June 28, 2004, hand-over of sovereignty.
The frequency of suicide bombings here is unprecedented, exceeding that of Palestinian attacks against Israel and of other militant insurgencies, such as the Chechen rebellion in Russia. Baghdad saw five suicide bombings in a six-hour span Sunday.
Early today, three suicide bombers killed at least 16 Iraqis in blasts north of Baghdad.
The first, around 8 a.m., ripped through a restaurant in Tuz Khurmatu where the Kurdish deputy prime minister, Rosh Shawais, was having breakfast. He was unharmed but a bodyguard was among the nine killed.
In Baqubah, another blast killed the deputy head of the Diyala province governing council, Hussein Alwan Timimi, and four others.
In Kirkuk, a bomber plowed his car into a U.S. consulate convoy. Two Iraqis died and 12 were hurt, a witness said.
With U.S.-led forces now better protected with concrete blast walls and rings of concertina wire and sandbags, militants have taken to targeting Iraqi police and civilians in their bid to convince Iraqis that their new leaders can't protect them. And increasingly, Iraqis are believed to be carrying out some of the suicide attacks.
U.S. officials and Iraqi analysts say the insurgents' resources are increasing on several fronts: money to buy vehicles and explosives, expertise in wiring car and human bombs and intelligence leaks that help them target U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Suicide attacks are on the rise because the explosive devices "are simple to construct and easy to operate, thus making suicide bombers difficult to detect," said Navy Cmdr. Fred Gaghan, in charge of the Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell in Iraq that studies bomb scenes for clues to insurgent tactics.
"They are viewed by terrorists as a successful means with which to kill or injure coalition, Iraqi security forces and innocent Iraqi citizens," Gaghan said.
"At this time, there is nothing to indicate that the availability of volunteers is on the decline," he said, noting the media coverage and videos of suicide bombings posted on the Internet that are said to fuel extremist recruitment.
Saad Obeidi, a retired Iraqi major general and security expert, suggested that President Bush had invited Islamic extremists to bring their fight against America here.
"One aim of the U.S. military once it invaded Iraq was to lure all insurgents and terrorists from all over the world to confront them here," he said.
The first suicide bombings of the insurgency were attributed to foreign infiltrators, mostly Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians and Saudis. But Obeidi believes that has changed.
"The Iraqi way of thinking in the past totally rejected that someone would kill himself," Obeidi said. "But once they realized how powerful this weapon is and saw its effectiveness, Iraqis started getting involved in suicide operations."
Some U.S. officials agree.
"There's a kind of axiom out there that says Iraqis aren't suicide bombers," Gen. George W. Casey, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad this year. "I'm not sure that's the case. I believe there are Iraqi Islamic extremists ... that are very capable of getting into cars and blowing themselves up."
Other U.S. officials say they still believe that foreign fighters are responsible for most of the suicide attacks, which have increasingly targeted Iraqis.
"There is no evidence this is being done by Iraqis," said U.S. Maj. Gen. John DeFreitas III, intelligence chief for the multinational mission that has about 150,000 troops in Iraq. "In every case we've seen, the driver has been a foreigner."
Coalition officials acknowledge, however, that the numbers show an Iraqi-dominated insurgency. Fewer than 5% of those killed or captured were foreigners, one official noted. He also described the influx from abroad as making up a "very, very small part" of the estimated 12,000 to 20,000 insurgents.
A recent attack in the city of Baqubah points to an Iraqi role in suicide bombings.
On May 15, Imad Shakir, a police major, was inspecting his security unit outside the Baqubah courthouse when he saw an unfamiliar young man in an ill-fitting police uniform approaching.
As the unit's officers asked the purported first lieutenant for identification, Shakir became suspicious and leaped to seize him. But the impostor detonated his explosives vest, lumpy beneath his blue clothing, killing Shakir and three bystanders.