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Homemade bombs are largest killer of coalition soldiers in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The innards of the Iraqi insurgency are piling up at Baghdad's bomb-squad headquarters: a tangle of gaffer's tape and electrical wire, 9-volt batteries and assorted kitchen timers, even a pink plastic alarm clock adorned with daisies.

They're the building blocks of what the military calls improvised explosive devices, the weapon of choice for Iraq's militants. The simple bombs have become the biggest killer of coalition soldiers and the unglamorous foundation of the insurgent effort to drive the U.S.-led coalition out of Iraq.

As the coalition IED death toll has mounted to more than 300, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks military casualties, soldiers have come to consider the homemade bombs an apt symbol for the larger war in Iraq: a sneaky, primitive weapon that's tailor-made for a murky, elusive enemy.

"It's a different kind of war. It's reactionary. You can't shoot until something explodes, and then what do you shoot at? They're already gone," said Sgt. Chris McGuire, of the 21st Field Artillery Regiment.

The ubiquitous IEDs led the military to add armor to thousands of soft-skinned vehicles. They've forced units across the country to devote untold hours to IED patrols, searching for suspected bombs or parking along crucial routes in an attempt to stop them from being planted.

It's dull and unrewarding work, and it diverts attention from vital community affairs and reconstruction missions, enlisted soldiers and officers at two Baghdad bases said.

For all the military's efforts to tame the threat, IEDs kill coalition soldiers at a steady clip, 10 in some months, 20 or more in others. And while the Iraqi government keeps no statistics on civilians killed by IEDs, news accounts of the blasts almost always include bystanders.

The devices are too easy to build, and the explosives that power them too readily available, for them to go away anytime soon, said Brig. Abdul Kadir Moniem Said, the director of the Iraqi police unit that defuses and investigates IEDs.

"One of the coalition's fatal mistakes was to allow the terrorists into army storerooms," he said, citing the postwar looting of ammunition depots across Iraq. "The terrorists took all the explosives they would ever need."

Citing security concerns, the U.S. military refused to divulge how many IEDs have exploded or been disarmed in Iraq.

American soldiers and Iraqi security personnel in Baghdad said they encountered at least a few each week, sometimes several in a day. In hotspots such as the Baghdad slum of Sadr City—which has been more peaceful in recent weeks—drivers slalom through streets littered with IEDs. The bombs are marked with pylons and other warning signs when U.S. forces are out of the area; the signs are removed as patrols move in.

In the early days of the insurgency, roadside bombs were little more than a nuisance to American and Iraqi forces. They were wildly inaccurate, poorly disguised and often did little damage even when they found their targets.

Not anymore.

Now, IEDs are often ingeniously concealed. Insurgents encase them in concrete blocks that look like pieces of broken curb. They're packed in plastic bags, orange crates, rusted gasoline cans and countless other pieces of trash, making them virtually indistinguishable from other rubbish along Baghdad's dirty streets. Some have even been stuffed into the carcasses of dogs or other animals.

"I hate them. They're cheating," said Staff Sgt. Eric May, launching into an anti-IED tirade as he led a 1st Cavalry Division (1st Battalion, 8th Regiment) night patrol onto the hazardous roads leading to Baghdad International Airport.

Newer bombs often are packed with ball bearings, bolts or other shrapnel. With enough explosives, they can tear through a Humvee's armor plating.

Remote detonators have become commonplace, allowing insurgents to stay far away from the blast site and making it difficult for U.S. forces to catch or kill the bombers.

"It began in a primitive way, but now they are quite professional," said Said, the police brigadier. "It seems that somebody from outside Iraq helped them, as the bombs we see now are used in other countries."

The insurgents have become more tactically sophisticated as well, daisy-chaining multiple bombs—23 in one case near Ramadi—to create massive "kill zones" dozens of yards long. They've also used roadside bombs as opening shots in ambushes, firing automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at soldiers as they spill out of disabled vehicles.

Increasingly, insurgents are turning to car bombs, which the military calls vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Often loaded with hundreds of pounds of explosives packed into every conceivable nook, car bombs are the most spectacular and devastating weapons in the militants' arsenal, capable of destroying tanks.

American military IED experts declined to describe insurgent tactics, or U.S. countermeasures, in any detail.

But a key component of the American response is hard to miss: a bizarrely shaped, six-wheeled, 22-ton armored vehicle called the "Buffalo," featuring a long extendable arm for probing suspected IEDs.

And though Iraqi forces still frequently sweep for roadside bombs on foot—poking at suspicious packages with their rifles—the Baghdad police have become more sophisticated, deploying a remote-controlled robot provided by the United States to detonate or disable bombs.

Saleh Mahdi, 24, a member of the police bomb squad, is especially pleased to have the robot at his disposal now.

Last Dec. 25, after disabling four IEDs by hand that morning, he was sent to defuse two more.

"I was standing between the two of them," he said, "trying to decide which one to do first."

Fearing that the bombs were remote-detonated and the attacker would spot him and blow up the devices, he lunged toward one of the bombs, hoping to defuse it before it exploded.

He didn't reach it in time. The blast tore off his right arm and sent shrapnel through his legs and torso.

At the hospital, before he fell unconscious, Mahdi heard the doctors say he'd be dead within minutes. Too much lost blood.

But he recovered. A month later he returned to the same job, defusing IEDs with one arm.

Little wonder that he and the other officers have nicknamed their new robot "The Rescuer."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+ied

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