The Iraq war's defining weapon
By Sudha Ramachandran
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
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
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
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
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
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 GlobalSecurity.org, 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
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