Tally: Iraq suicide bombs killed 660
Thousands of people in Iraq have suffered from suicide bombings ！ a phenomenon unknown here until after the U.S.-led war toppled Saddam Hussein's regime nearly a year ago.
The cycle began nine days after fighting erupted, and has claimed at least 660 lives ！ far more than in 3 1/2 years of Israel-Palestinian suicide attacks ！ according to U.S. military officials.
The majority of victims are Iraqis, the U.S. military said. Iraqi officials and police put the death toll higher by at least 100.
In the past year, there have been at least 24 suicide bombings, including four where more than one attacker struck at the same target, according to an Associated Press tally and interviews with officials.
In comparison, since September 2000, 474 people ！ the majority Israelis ！ have been killed in 112 Palestinian suicide bombings.
One Iraqi victim, Mohammed Hamza, has a damaged ear, facial scars and a heavy feeling of guilt. His cousin, Diyaa Obaid, was not so lucky.
Both were caught last month in a suicide bombing outside a police station in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Obaid was one of at least 53 people killed when a suicide bomber rammed a truckload of explosives into the police station, where hundreds of Iraqis had gathered to apply for jobs as policemen.
"I insisted that he apply. I thought I was doing him a favor. I feel so guilty. I haven't even gone to see his family," said Hamza, who is partly deaf because of his injury.
The cycle began during the opening days of the war when on March 29 an Iraqi attacker pretending to be a taxi driver needing help killed four U.S. soldiers when his car exploded at a checkpoint north of Najaf.
The carnage continued this week, after a suicide bomber detonated his car near a hotel in Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least seven people. On Thursday, four people, including a suspected suicide bomber, died when a car bomb blew up in the southern city of Basra.
The toll in Iraq includes the 19 Italian paramilitary police killed in a suicide truck bombing at their base in November.
Initially, American troops were targeted, but after coalition forces improved their security the suicide bombers turned their attention to Iraqi and other civilians, who have bore the brunt of attacks.
"The suicide bombers are trying to deliver two messages. To the Iraqis they are saying that as long as you link your future to the West, there will be no security. To the West, the message is there is a huge price to pay for staying in Iraq," said Boaz Ganor, an Israeli terrorism expert.
Of the 24 attacks, 18 were carried out using vehicles and the others were suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies.
In the most devastating strike, at least four suicide bombers attacked Shiite Muslim shrines earlier this month, killing 181, according to the U.S. military. Iraqi officials said 271 people were killed.
In February, twin suicide bombers killed 109 people in two Kurdish party offices in the northern city of Irbil. And in October, four suicide bombings targeted the international Red Cross headquarters and three Iraqi police stations in Baghdad, killing 40 people.
In August, a truck bomber struck the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22, including top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed al-Qaida-affilated groups for some attacks ！ offering little proof, but saying their methods conformed with the terror network's tendency to stage spectacular operations.
"Iraq has become the central front in the war on terrorism," said Dan Senor, spokesman for the coalition.
The violence in Iraq has been an issue in the presidential race, too, with the presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry accusing U.S. President Bush of creating "terrorists where they did not exist."
Analysts warn against hastily accusing al-Qaida of masterminding the attacks, and point out that several groups, both religious and secular, have much to benefit from the bombings.
The suspects are many, including former Saddam regime loyalists, Ansar al-Islam ！ a militant group with suspected al-Qaida links ！ foreign fighters and the Fedayeen, a prewar irregular Iraqi militia.
While authorities have made several arrests after many of the bombings, they don't have a clear picture of who's behind the suicide attacks and are fighting an enemy who does not leave much evidence.
The case has been further jeopardized by a weakened state of intelligence gathering after the U.S.-led coalition dissolved the mukhabarat, or Iraqi intelligence, along with the army and police.
Suicide bombers have been striking almost at will against police stations, top religious figures and international agencies, helped by an abundance of explosives and bomb-making experience, Iraq's vast landscape and Iraqis' conservatism and ！ in some case ！ anti-Western views.
"There is a campaign of intimidation, intimidation into doing nothing. It's a policy of kill one, terrorize a thousand," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military's deputy director of operations.
February was one of the most active for suicide bombers, who struck five times, killing at least 225 people and wounding hundreds of others.
Putting together a car bomb or preparing individuals for a suicide bombing is a simple procedure if the elements of discretion, expertise and organization are present, officials and experts say.
"Those suicide attacks don't require a lot of sophistication. There are enough weapons and ordnance in Iraq to construct the bombs and it can be done discreetly," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the Virginia-based RAND Corporation. "The terrorists go with what works. All you need is a safe house, a garage."
Hotels have been the latest suicide bombing targets, apparently an attempt to strike at foreign civilians.
"The terrorists are telling Iraqis in your face, `If you think you can depend on those institutions, think again,'" said Kimmitt.
He warned of more attacks until June 30, when Iraqis are to take over power from the U.S.-led coalition.