The antitank mines seen stacked here are a portion of the more than 1,000 mines discovered recently near Rawah, about 175 miles northwest of Baghdad. These and other explosives are helping accelerate the U.S. death toll.
The antitank mines seen stacked here are a portion of the more than 1,000 mines discovered recently near Rawah, about 175 miles northwest of Baghdad. These and other explosives are helping accelerate the U.S. death toll.
Courtesy 2nd Marine Division Camp

Bigger, Stronger Homemade Bombs Now to Blame for Half of U.S. Deaths

An unexploded IED sits on the hood of a car as American soldiers investigate at the site of an April attack on a U.S. convoy north of Baghdad.
An unexploded IED sits on the hood of a car as American soldiers investigate at the site of an April attack on a U.S. convoy north of Baghdad. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)

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By John Ward Anderson, Steve Fainaru and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 25 -- After 31 months of fighting in Iraq, more than half of all American fatalities are now being caused by powerful roadside bombs that blast fiery, lethal shrapnel into the cabins of armored vehicles, confronting every patrol with an unseen, menacing adversary that is accelerating the U.S. death toll.

U.S. military officials, analysts and militants themselves say insurgents have learned to adapt to U.S. defensive measures by using bigger, more sophisticated and better-concealed bombs known officially as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. They are sometimes made with multiple artillery shells and Iranian TNT, sometimes disguised as bricks, boosted with rocket propellant, and detonated by a cell phone or a garage door opener.

The bombs range from massive explosives capable of destroying five-ton vehicles to precision "shaped charges" that bore softball-size holes through thick armor, the main defense of troops in the field, and they are becoming a key factor in the fast-rising U.S. death toll.

It took about 18 months from the start of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to reach 1,000 U.S. deaths; it took less than 13 months to reach 1,000 more. A major reason for the surge, statistics show, is the insurgency's embrace of IEDs, together with the military's inability to detect them.

"It's the dreaded IED that's killing our soldiers," said Michael White, the creator of http://icasualties.org/ , a Web site that tracks U.S. military casualties. "I read in the paper that we have some new device to detect them, or we're taking extra care to make sure we don't get hit, and death after death keeps coming in, and it's IEDs."

In the first six months of battle in Iraq, only 11 soldiers -- about 4 percent of the 289 who died -- were killed by homemade roadside bombs. In the last six months, at least 214 service members have been killed by IEDs, or 63 percent of the 339 combat-related deaths and 53 percent of the 400 U.S. fatalities, according to data complied by the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.

"The IEDs are the biggest threat we have," said Lt. Col. John Walsh, commander of Task Force 1-163, a Montana Army National Guard battalion that is completing a year-long combat tour in Hawija, a Sunni Arab city about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Walsh's soldiers have encountered more than 600 roadside bombs, 60 percent of which exploded before they were detected. The unit has lost four soldiers, two from roadside bombs, and had 68 wounded, a casualty rate of 8.5 percent.

"Right now they're probably four times more powerful than when we first got here," 1st Sgt. Stanley Clinton said, referring to the bombs. Clinton, 53, has been deployed for the past year in Kirkuk for Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Brigade Combat Team.

Clinton said that when the 116th combat team, an Idaho Army National Guard unit, arrived last December, the insurgents employed "backwoodsy stuff" -- often tiny bombs fashioned from items as basic as Coca-Cola cans. Now, he said, they often consist of one or more 120- or 155-mm artillery rounds, 15 or 20 pounds of rocket propellant or shaped charges that concentrate the blast and punch through armor plating.

"Clearly we are not winning the competition over tactics and counter-tactics," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst who heads Brookings' Iraq Index. "The insurgency's ability to hide IEDs better, detonate them more remotely and build them more powerfully has been at least as effective as our improvements in better armor and better tactics."

In some instances, insurgents have constructed IEDs powerful enough to kill soldiers inside 22-ton Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which are more heavily armored than Humvees.

Even though U.S. commanders have placed huge emphasis on countering IEDs, O'Hanlon said, "We are still suffering as many casualties as ever, which makes me wonder if we've found the limitations of our reconnaissance measures." Militants may have discovered, for instance, how to avoid being spotted by surveillance flights, he said.


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