The Iraq war's defining weapon

By Sudha Ramachandran

02/16/06 "
Asia Times" -- -- BANGALORE - The threat posed by Iraq's reported possession of weapons of mass destruction was the excuse US President George W Bush gave for his invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it is the simplest of technologies - the roadside bomb - that has emerged as the biggest nightmare for US occupation forces in Iraq.

The improvised explosive device (IED), which is the insurgents' weapon of choice in Iraq, has accounted for more than half of all US injuries and deaths in combat since March 2003 - by far the single greatest cause of death for US service members.

According to Pentagon figures through January 21, IEDs have accounted for at least 894 of the 1,735 US military deaths (51%) by hostile fire and over 9,200 of the more than 16,500 wounded (56%).

It is being described as the defining weapon of the war in Iraq, lethal though low in technological sophistication. The IED is a simple weapon, easy and cheap to build, and easier to hide. This makes it an attractive weapon for insurgents.

An IED is often just some old artillery shells detonated by remote control or by an electric charge through an attached wire. In Iraq, IEDs have been remotely detonated using readily available doorbells, cellular phones, pagers, car alarms, garage-door openers, toy-car remotes and so on. They are hidden alongside roads in potholes, rubbish heaps, discarded cartons, drink cans and animal carcasses.

As with other aspects of the war in Iraq, it is the Iraqis who are bearing the brunt. Iraqi soldiers are far more vulnerable to IEDs than the Americans as the vehicles they drive are not armored.

While suicide bombings grab media attention for their spectacular impact, it is roadside bombings that are far more numerous in Iraq, and their frequency has grown dramatically over the past two years. There were about 10,600 roadside bombings in 2005, nearly twice the number that occurred in 2004. This means that on an average, 30 roadside bombings are carried out per day across Iraq.

Not surprisingly, deterring IED attacks is an important component of the US military effort in Iraq. The Joint IED Defeat Task Force that was set up in October 2003 was recently expanded and put under the charge of a four-star general, signaling the priority that the Pentagon is according the fight against the roadside bombs. The task force's budget has grown from US$600 million in 2004 to $1.2 billion in 2005 and is expected to triple this year to about $3.5 billion.

Media reports citing US government sources say that while the number of IED attacks has grown over the past two years, US countermeasures seem to be working in reducing the number of fatalities.

Statistics give a different story, however. The number of fatalities from IEDs rose steadily all of last year, according to the Iraq index compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. While the number of IED fatalities per month was in single digits in 2003, it surged in 2004 and grew significantly throughout 2005, averaging more than 30 deaths a month last year.

US government efforts to detect and neutralize IEDs have no doubt increased, but so has the ingenuity of the insurgents. Insurgents have refined their techniques with regard to construction, concealment and detonation of devices. The lethality and sophistication of IEDs have also improved.

In 2003, IEDs were little more than artillery shells that, when exploded, caused an extensive blast and scattered shrapnel indiscriminately. But these were less effective in piercing armored targets. Then the insurgents started packing the IEDs with more explosives, even nails, ball bearings, glass and gravel - eventually using anti-tank missiles instead of artillery shells.

Since early 2005, insurgents have been using a "shaped charge", an IED adapted to concentrate the force of the blast, giving it a better chance of piercing armored vehicles. Describing the capacity of the shaped-charge IED, John Pike, director of US defense policy group, told the BBC News website that it could "go through the heaviest armor like a hot knife through butter". Insurgents have also advanced with regard to the detonators they use. With the US forces using electronic jammers to block radio-wave detonators, they have moved on to using infra-red lasers.

For US troops in Iraq, the most unsafe place seems to be inside their vehicles. Instead of using vehicles that could set off a pressure-detonated IED, the US forces are opting for foot patrols. The insurgents have responded to that by laying IEDs near likely foot paths.

The battle of the roadside bombs in Iraq is not just about detonating or defusing IEDs. It is about innovation and counter-innovation, ingenuity and guile. And the insurgents seem always a step ahead.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd


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