BAGHDAD — Despite the high priority set by U.S.-led coalition forces to stem car bombings, the tactic remains one of the main killers of civilians in Iraq, according to figures compiled by McClatchy Newspapers.
The tactic took on a horrifying new dimension this past weekend when about 170 Iraqis were killed in five car bombs — as many as 155 of them when a produce truck laden with explosives leveled houses and shredded bodies in Armili, about 100 miles north of the capital.
Six more civilians were killed in three separate attacks in Baghdad Monday.
In Iraq, unwary motorists can be driving car bombs. Auto mechanics have been known to plant bombs in vehicles they're fixing, and phony checkpoints sometimes serve as ersatz car-bomb shops. Prudent drivers check under their cars after leaving them in public places.
Sermed, 36, a father of two who didn't want his last name published because of security concerns, recalled encountering a checkpoint along Karrada Kharij Street in a part of Baghdad contested by different Shiite groups. He saw a guard kneel and place something under the car being searched in front of him.
When it was his turn, he said he got out to open his trunk "as a courtesy" and kept an eye on the guards as they searched.
Minutes after clearing the checkpoint, "my conscience started bugging me about what I saw," he said. "What should I do?"
He pulled alongside the driver of the car that was ahead of his at the checkpoint and suggested he inspect his car. "Indeed," Sermed said, "there was an (improvised explosive device) attached to it."
Bystanders hurried back to the checkpoint to alert the guards. By then, Sermed said, the checkpoint was gone.
According to records compiled by McClatchy, there seems to be no appreciable decline in car bombings. The number of such attacks during the first week of July was consistent with those of previous months. In the first week of each month from January through June, the number of car bombs averaged 10. There were 11 last week.
The first week of February saw the largest number of car-bomb casualties, when 175 were killed. In the first week of this month, 170 people were killed in car bombings, almost all of them in the Armili bombing.
Overall civilian deaths dropped significantly in June, when a four-day curfew was in effect.
While most of last weekend's car bombings occurred in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials have pointed to the Armili truck bomb as an indication that insurgents are striking where U.S. and coalition forces are largely absent. Until Saturday, Armili, a farming village of Shiite Turkmens, had been spared the kind of carnage seen in most parts of Iraq.
"When insurgents are captured or killed in one area, they will try to move their operations and activities to another just to show they are still in business by killing more innocent people, as you saw in Armili," Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, said at a news conference Monday.
"But this shows in military terms that they are on the run."
Starting June 19, when the U.S. military launched major offensives primarily in provinces surrounding Baghdad, it has issued 24 press releases citing 46 raids and arrests related to car-bomb operations. Many of those were in and around Baghdad, but also included finds in cities and towns in eastern Diyala Province, as well as in Tikrit and Mosul, north of the capital.
Military officials repeatedly have said that every car-bomb factory raided and dismantled means fewer car bombs that insurgents can use to kill civilians.
"We expect during the surge there's going to be an increase in car bombs," Lt. Col. Dan Williams said Monday. "The enemy has a vote, and he's going to fight back.
"The surge is just now getting into place," he added. "It's too early to say if we need more troops. We need more time."