U.S. and Iraqi army soldiers took positions yesterday as a firefight with insurgents broke out in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Iraqi officials are resisting U.S. attempts to set details of the plan to secure the capital.
Roadside blast death toll climbs for Hawaii troops
Roadside bombs in Iraq killed more troops with ties to Hawaii last year than during the previous two years combined, despite increased efforts to find and disarm the so-called improvised explosive devices.
IED spells death
Roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, were major killers of Hawaii-based troops serving in Iraq last year. Here is a breakdown on the number of IED-related casualties that have been identified by the military:
2004: 5 deaths in 5 attacks
2005: 4 deaths in 4 attacks
2006: 15 deaths in 9 attacks
At least 15 soldiers who were either from Hawaii or had been based here for training died from nine blasts in 2006, compared with nine casualties in as many attacks in all of 2004 and 2005, according to a Star-Bulletin count. The count lists only war deaths identified by the military as IED-related.
The military, which got more than $3 billion last year just to counter the IED threat, can disarm or destroy 50 percent of the roadside bombs it finds, while the casualty rate per attack dropped by half since 2003. But experts say that while investments like radio jammers, air and ground surveillance and tougher armor pay off, the insurgents continue to surprise troops by building more effective bombs.
"It's a two-side competition, and as we get better, they get better. They adapt to our changes in methods. At the end of the day, the only way to solve this problem is to end the war," said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based research group.
Last year, the largest single loss of life for Hawaii-based troops happened on Dec. 6 when five 25th Infantry Division soldiers were killed after a bomb detonated near their Humvee in Hawijah.
The soldiers, who were on a humanitarian mission, were among 74 killed by roadside bombs last month, up from 45 IED-related deaths in November and 53 in October, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent Web site that tracks war casualties.
Roadside bombs are variations of traditional land mines that have been around since World War I, Biddle said. In Iraq they became the weapon of choice for the insurgency because the bombs are cheap, effective, relatively easy to make and do not require much training for someone assigned to plant them before convoys, he said.
A boy walked past a blast site yesterday in central Baghdad, Iraq, where two civilians were injured by a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol. The U.S. says IEDs are becoming deadlier.
The IEDs, which are responsible for most casualties in Iraq -- with one in every five explosions resulting in either death or injury -- are a top concern for the U.S. Department of Defense, said Christine DeVries, spokeswoman for the Joint IED Defeat Organization.
Launched in 2003, the office employs about 500 people under a $3.3 billion budget just to study the IED threat, prevent the attacks and protect soldiers. Recently, its focus shifted toward those who might be financing and planning the missions.
"We absolutely are interested in taking out of play the guy who's putting an IED on the street, but he's not really the root of the problem," DeVries said.
To build the bombs, insurgents rely on huge caches of weapons that were stockpiled by the former Baathist regime for local political control, said Ivan Oelrich, vice president for Strategic Security programs at the Federation of American Scientists.
"These guys all have keys to the bunkers. They are learning to do things, taking artillery shells and making them," said Oelrich, who, as a consultant for U.S. Army War College, interviewed scores of British and American officers in mid-2003, following the U.S.-led occupation of Baghdad and the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"They would have these warehouses that were literally stacked to the ceiling and under extraordinarily unsafe conditions," Oelrich said. "They would open these things and their hearts would stop."
An indication that Iraqis still have lots of explosives can be seen in their reckless use of car bombs, according to Oelrich, who teaches a course in conventional weapons technology at Georgetown University. For example, he said cars often are packed with "hundreds of pounds of explosive," much of which goes to waste and could be better used if it were spread into smaller bombs for separate attacks.
"They are not using this as a scarce commodity," he said.
To minimize the damage from roadside bombs, Congress has authorized $3.7 billion for armored Humvees, $3.2 billion for body armor and more than $3 billion for vehicle protection since the 2002 fiscal year, said Josh Holly, a Republican spokesman for the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. The current defense authorization bill provides $109.7 million for signal jamming devices to prevent bombs from being set off by remote control, and $100 million for at least 10 planes to patrol roads.
"The goal," Holly said in an e-mail, "is to create the expectation that IED emplacement is a suicide mission."
But as the military better equips itself, insurgents answer back with more creative bombs.
One category of IED known as explosive-formed penetrators or self-forging fragments can go through nearly any type of vehicle armor. It relies on a disk-shaped plate that turns into a slug of metal to pierce through the bottom of a Humvee, Oelrich said.
Also, by putting more explosives into a single bomb, insurgents can now place IEDs farther from where convoys travel, a tactic that makes American soldiers more vulnerable to sniper attacks as they are forced to drive more slowly to survey more ground.
"We are not dealing with the roadside bombs that we were dealing with three years ago," Oelrich said. "We give them the same name, but they could be very different kinds of animals. For one thing, they are bigger now."