IEDs: Iraq's prolific killers

SUN JOURNAL

Bombs: Small in size, hard to detect and cheap to produce, homemade roadside explosives are posing the greatest threat to American forces.

April 03, 2004|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLUJAH, Iraq - Hardly a day passes without Marine Lance Cpl. Donzell King being lectured about improvised explosive devices, which have killed and maimed more U.S. service members in Iraq than any other weapon.

"They gave us a brief before we left the U.S.," says King, 23, of Chicago. "They gave us a brief when we got off the plane, they gave us a brief when we got here, and then they give us a brief every time we go out on the road."

A war that began, in part, as a hunt for weapons of mass destruction has turned into a hunt for weapons of almost startlingly simplistic design that can kill one or two people at a time. Designed to explode beneath a passing vehicle, the devices can be detonated by remote control or by an electric charge through an attached wire.

A study by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which was shown to visiting U.S. lawmakers and some contractors, found that in a 90-day period that ended in December, U.S. forces in Iraq suffered 708 attacks involving the devices, known as IEDs. Of those, 298 attacks caused 718 casualties, more than those injured by rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds combined.

Last month, 19 U.S. service members were killed by roadside bombs. Yesterday, one soldier from the U.S. 1st Armored Division was killed and another wounded in a roadside bomb attack in the Mansur district of Baghdad. And U.S. soldiers near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, shot and killed a man who was trying to plant a bomb.

On Thursday, three U.S. soldiers were wounded near Fallujah when their Humvee vehicle hit a roadside bomb.

As cellular phone service is extended into western Iraq, the threat of IEDs being detonated from afar, possibly by an insurgent keeping watch with binoculars, will increase. There are also worries that the weapons are becoming deadlier as artillery shells, antitank mines and other more powerful explosives are used.

IEDs, cheap to build and easy to hide, are "psychological warfare at its most vicious level," the study concludes.

With Marines taking over security for much of the violent Sunni Triangle region, the brass is hoping that increased vigilance will help troops avoid the toll that IEDs have taken on the Army.

Like the Army, the Marine Corps has an extensive campaign of nighttime patrols to try to catch insurgents in the act of making their miniature bombs or placing them. Small robotic devices are used to examine and detonate IEDs found by Marine scouts or drivers.

Many of the Humvees that are the Marines' main mode of transportation have been "armored up" to provide protection against an exploding device.

The Marines also have a complex system of "convoy protection" to spot and avoid IEDs and, if one explodes, to pursue the bomber.

Although ambushes on Marine and Army convoys were common during the invasion last year, the use of IEDs did not appear until months after Baghdad fell. One reason may be that the U.S. troops' advance toward Baghdad was so swift that loyalists of Saddam Hussein did not have time to plant devices.

Caught by surprise at the proliferation of the IEDs - some as small as cigarette packs, some hidden in trash, dead animals or discarded military-ration boxes - the Pentagon began a crash program to develop a high-tech solution to detecting and neutralizing them.

"There is not a technological fix yet" to the IED threat, says Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division. "That said, though, we do have surprises coming."

In the rushed planning at the Pentagon for the Iraq invasion, the potential of IEDs was not foreseen. Some Army experts, who have struggled with the IED threat, said this war might be remembered as the one in which the deadly art of small explosives was perfected.

"This is a totally different war than anybody expected," says Army Staff Sgt. Robert McPeak, 28, a member of an explosive ordnance squad from Fort Dix, N.J. "We knew that IEDs were possible, but not this many and hidden in so many places."

There are U.S. statistics that suggest that, in its final weeks, the Army was able to decrease the number of successful IED attacks because of increased intelligence from friendly Iraqis. But the same numbers suggest that the killing power of the average device is increasing.

Sgt. Steven Prieto, 24, of Los Angeles says he could tell that the tension level increased when his convoy moved into Iraq from Kuwait. "The minute we crossed [into Iraq], you could tell they were more scared," he says.

Posters warning "Complacency Kills" are common in the Marine encampments here and elsewhere in Al Anbar province. Before a convoy departs, a mandatory briefing details what strategies will be used if a device is found or detonated.

The briefing is lengthy and unsparing. For freshly arrived troops, the effect is chastening.

At a recent briefing, two officers describe the threats and planned responses along the route. A gunnery sergeant then steps forward to dispel the doom and gloom.

"We're going to get everybody back in one piece," Gunnery Sgt. Eric Olson says in a confident, commanding voice. "Go make it happen, Marines."

Which is not to say that Olson, 35, with 17 years in the Corps, is without concern about the dangers.

"I get the jumps every time I see a clump of trash alongside the road," he says later out of earshot of the other Marines.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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