The Weapon No One Can Stop
Despite heroic reassurances from both the White House and the Pentagon that the six-week-old U.S. escalation in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province is proceeding on course, suicide car-bombers continue to devastate Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, often under the noses of reinforced American patrols and checkpoints. Indeed, February was a record month for car bombings, with at least 44 deadly explosions in Baghdad alone, and March promises to duplicate the carnage.
Car bombs, moreover, continue to evolve in horror and lethality. In January and March, the first chemical "dirty bomb" explosions took place using chlorine gas, giving potential new meaning to the President's missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The sectarian guerrillas who claim affiliation with "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" are now striking savagely, and seemingly at will, against dissident Sunni tribes in al-Anbar province as well as Shiite areas of Baghdad and Shiite pilgrims on the highways to the south of the capital. With each massacre, the bombers refute Bush administration claims that the U.S. military can "take back and secure" Baghdad block-by-block or establish its own patrols and new, fortified mini-bases as a realistic substitute for local self-defense militias.
On February 23rd, for instance, shortly after the beginning of the "Surge," a suicide truck-bomber killed 36 Sunnis in Habbaniya, west of Baghdad, after an imam at a local mosque had denounced al-Qaeda. Ten days later, a kamikaze driver ploughed his truck bomb into Baghdad's famed literary bazaar, the crowded corridor of bookstores and coffee houses along Mutanabi Street, incinerating at least 30 people and, perhaps, the last hopes of an Iraqi intellectual renaissance.
On March 10th, another suicide bomber massacred 20 people in Sadr City, just a few hundred yards away from one of the new U.S. bases. The next day, a bomber rammed his car into flatbed truck full of Shiite pilgrims, killing more than 30. A week later, horror exceeded itself when a car bomber evidently used two little children as a decoy to get through a military checkpoint, then exploded the car with the kids still in the back seat.
In a demonstration of a tactic that has proven especially deadly over the past year, a car-bomb attack on March 23rd was coordinated with an assailant in a suicide vest and almost killed Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie, whose tribal alliance, the Anbar Salvation Council, has accepted funding from the Americans and been denounced by the jihadis.
When it comes to the development of suicide vehicles, however, the most alarming innovation has, without doubt, been the debut in January of truck bombs carrying chlorine gas tanks rigged with explosives. Of course, "dirty bombs," usually of the nuclear variety, have been a longtime obsession of anti-terrorism experts (as well as the producers of TV potboilers), but the sinister glamour of radioactive devices -- scattering deadly radiological waste in the City of London or across midtown Manhattan -- has tended to overshadow the far greater likelihood that bomb-makers would initially be attracted to the cheapness and ease of combining explosives with any number of ordinary industrial caustics and toxins.
As if to emphasize that poison-gas explosions were now part of their standard arsenal, sectarian bombers -- identified, as usual, by the American military as members of "al-Qaeda in Mespotamia" -- unleashed three successive chlorine suicide-bomb attacks on March 16th against Sunni towns outside of Falluja.
The two largest attacks involved dump trucks loaded with 200-gallon chlorine tanks. Aside from the dozens wounded or killed by the direct explosions, at least another 350 people were stricken by the yellow-green clouds of chlorine.
As in April 1915, with the first uses of chlorine gas on the Western Front in World War I, these explosions sowed widespread panic, underlining -- as the bombers no doubt intended -- the inability of the Americans to protect potential allies in al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. (The recent discovery of stocks of chlorine and nitric acid in a Sunni neighborhood of west Baghdad will hardly assuage those fears.)
The shock waves from the March dirty bombs also rattled windows on the Hudson River, where New York Police Department (NYPD) experts warned the media that poor security at local chemical plants raised the danger of copy-cat attacks using stolen ingredients.
An anonymous senior official in the department's Counter-Terrorism Bureau told Reuters that "the NYPD expected would-be attackers targeting New York to try to import the tactic." At the same time, New Jersey's two Democratic Senators -- Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg -- complained that the Bush administration was coddling the chemical industry by blocking New Jersey and other states from implementing tougher safety regulations.
Meanwhile, back in Iraq, the chlorine clouds and the truck bombs have deflected U.S. troops into a massive, desperate hunt for the "makeshift car-bomb factories" that Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for the Surge, claims proliferate in the gritty suburbs and industrial estates that ring Baghdad.
The image of a clandestine car-bomb industry, by the way, is rich with irony. Baghdad's factory belt contains hundreds of state-owned and private factories that once manufactured canned food, tiles, baby clothes, transit buses, fertilizers, commercial glass, and the like. Since the American invasion, however, the plants are idle, if not derelict, and their once integrated Sunni-Shiite workforces are bunkered down, jobless, in increasingly sectarian neighborhoods. Unemployment in greater Baghdad is variously estimated in the 40-60 percent range.
It is unlikely that the current raids -- using troops who would otherwise be securing streets and "winning hearts and minds" -- will uncover more than a tiny fraction of the city's bomb "factories." Indeed, the car bomb -- even more than the roadside bombs (IEDs) that are filling the Humvee junkyards -- has proven globally to be an almost invincible weapon of the ill-armed and underfunded, as well as the one weapon of mass destruction that the Bush administration has totally ignored. None of the American commanders in the field in 2003-2004, much less the imperial daydreamers in neoconservative think-tanks back in Washington, seem to have foreseen the ubiquity of its use.
According to a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, carried out by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Iraqi physicians (organized through Mustansiriya University in Baghdad), an estimated 78,000 Iraqis were killed by several thousand vehicle bombings between March 2003 to June 2006.
Moreover, as I explain in my newly-published history of the car bomb, Buda's Wagon, there is little hope for any technological fix or scientific miracle that will allow reliable detection of a stolen Mercedes with 500 pounds of C-4 in the trunk or a dump truck laden with chlorine tanks and high explosives idling in one of Baghdad's colossal traffic jams. (Checkpoints? Just a synonym for target of opportunity.)
In the meantime, the bombers are obviously wagering that if they can sustain current levels of carnage, the Shiite militias will be forced back onto the streets to protect their neighborhoods (as the American troops can't), risking a bloody, all-out confrontation with U.S. forces for the ownership of the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City and other Shiite areas in eastern Baghdad.
On the other side, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency expert and mastermind of the Surge, must shut down the car-bombers by the beginning of the summer or face a likely popular revolt in Sadr City. With each explosion, his chances of success diminish.