CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq—Improvised explosive devices, the roadside bombs that insurgents build from castoff artillery shells and other munitions, have become the No. 1 killer of American troops in Iraq this year, despite a massive U.S. campaign to blunt their effectiveness.
American commanders have dispatched newly armored Humvees, Army engineers have begun a yearlong program to clear vegetation and debris along major transportation routes, and military technicians have equipped vehicles with devices that jam cell phones and garage-door openers, which are used to trigger the explosives.
In spite of those efforts, deaths due to IEDs rose by more than 41 percent in the first five months of this year, compared with the same period last year, and account for nearly 52 percent of the 261 U.S. combat deaths so far this year, according to statistics assembled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an Internet site that uses official casualty reports to organize deaths by a variety of criteria.
That's a change from 2004, when IEDs accounted for 189 of the 720 combat deaths among U.S. troops—about 26 percent.
In the first five months of last year, 85 deaths were attributed to IEDs. In the same period this year, 120 deaths were due to roadside bombs. They were the No. 1 cause of U.S. combat deaths for each of the five full months so far this year.
IEDs have killed 15 American service members so far in June; last year, only two U.S. deaths were attributed to IEDs in the first two weeks of June.
The most recent fatalities, the U.S. military announced Friday, were five Marines from the II Marine Expeditionary Force who died Thursday when their vehicle hit an IED near Haqlaniyah.
Pentagon officials acknowledge that insurgents are killing more American troops with bigger bombs and say soldiers headed to Iraq or Afghanistan get specific training to help them recognize and survive IEDs.
Military officers in Iraq are optimistic that the U.S. efforts to counter IEDs will work. Brig. Gen. Tom Lawing, who oversees Army engineers working throughout northern Iraq, said military patrols were uncovering half of the roadside IEDS before they could be detonated.
Recent sweeps to round up suspected insurgents also have helped, Brig. Gen. Yves Fontaine said.
"We are pursuing an aggressive attack against the insurgents. They don't have time for IEDs because they are running," said Fontaine, of 1st Corp Support Command, which oversees Camp Anaconda, 60 miles north of Baghdad, the nucleus for logistical support and supply throughout Iraq.
But the rising number of deaths due to IEDs suggests that insurgents have been able to counter American measures with bigger and better bombs.
One U.S. military official in Washington, who declined to be named because the information he was revealing was classified, said insurgents had learned to make a more advanced type of IED called a shaped-charge, which is designed to penetrate armor.
Roadside bombs were first used against coalition military convoys in July 2003. The numbers grew steadily as insurgents exploited the vulnerability of American supply lines and a hefty supply of munitions that Saddam Hussein's army had abandoned and U.S. troops left unguarded for months after Saddam's regime fell.
The bombs became the focus of attention last December, when a Tennessee National Guardsman in Kuwait publicly complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that he and others had been forced to scrounge for metal to armor the Humvees and other vehicles they had been issued to drive supplies into Iraq.
Since then, the Pentagon has shipped hundreds of armored Humvees to Iraq, added armor to those in the field and ordered unarmored vehicles to remain on protected bases.
Only 200 armored Humvees, mostly assigned to military police units, were in Iraq when insurgent violence began to rise in summer 2003. Now, about 9,000 of the 12,000 Humvees in Iraq have been armored. They're the workhorse vehicles for protecting the convoys that supply 140,000 troops across Iraq.
The insurgents have responded by creating bigger IEDs, often using 155 mm artillery shells linked in a series, which inflict multiple casualties even on hardened vehicles.
An explosion Jan. 5, for example, was so powerful that it ripped through an armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Baghdad, killing seven Army National Guardsmen from the 256th Infantry Brigade, based in Lafayette, La. On May 23, in Haswa, a single blast killed four Army National Guardsmen from the 155th Infantry, based in Biloxi, Miss.
Defending convoys is a massive problem. Each day, goods move to the troops in hundreds of convoys, which are on the roads day and night. Up to 4,000 trucks and tankers are used to supply the coalition's daily needs, which range from a million gallons of fuel to more than 100,000 cases of bottled water.
Commanders in Iraq have undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at cutting IED casualties. Patrols often use an armored machine called a Buffalo, which has a bomb-handling arm on its snout, to remove suspicious objects from the roadway.
Army engineers also are clearing debris, tearing out guardrails and hardening roadside shoulders along the main supply route called Tampa, a series of highways that stretch more than 500 miles from the Kuwaiti border in the south to northern Iraq.
Commanders say the project to improve security along Tampa will take a year, and they hope it'll make it harder for insurgents to plant IEDs.
Aircraft patrol key highways each day, looking for disturbances in the ground where bombs may have been hidden and other suspicious signs.
Army technicians have been equipping Humvees with Warlock jamming devices, intended to prevent insurgents from triggering IEDs with the radio waves from cell phones and garage-door openers.
The Pentagon spent $45 million for about 1,000 Warlock jammers, manufactured by EDO Communications and Countermeasures, a Westlake Village, Calif., military-supply contractor. A new generation of jammers that blocks a broader spectrum of signals is being developed. It's expected to be deployed late this year or early in 2006.
(Washburn reports for The Charlotte Observer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): 20050609 USIRAQ BOMBS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ-BOMBS