By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Attacks in Iraq involving lethal weapons that U.S. officials say are made in Iran hit a record high last month, despite efforts to crack down on networks supplying the armor-piercing weapons known as explosively formed projectiles, according to a senior U.S. commander.
The number of attacks with the projectiles rose to 65 in April, said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who oversees day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq. "The overwhelming majority" were in predominantly Shiite eastern Baghdad, Odierno said in an interview this week. Officials have said the projectiles are used almost exclusively by Shiite fighters against U.S. military targets.
The growing use of the projectiles is a major concern for American commanders because the weapons are powerful enough to punch through the heaviest U.S. armored vehicles, including the Abrams tank. As a result, the weapons are far more lethal than other roadside bombs, and have been a factor in keeping U.S. troop casualties from dropping despite improvements in the military's ability to detect and defeat roadside bombs.
Averaging about the size of a coffee can, explosively formed projectiles detonate and send a cone-shaped slug of metal at high speed toward the target, acting as a spear that's able not only to penetrate armor but also to shatter it, creating debris that inflicts further damage. To function correctly, the projectiles require components with sophisticated machining that often come from Iran, according to U.S. military officials.
The U.S. military in recent weeks captured the Iraqi leader of a network that brings the projectiles into Iraq from Iran, as well as other members of extremist cells provided with funding, training and munitions by the al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said at a news conference in Washington last week.
Also seized were computer documents and records detailing attacks against U.S. forces, presumably kept to justify financing by the Quds Force, Petraeus said.
While the captured head of the weapons cell "certainly reports to the very top," Petraeus added, there was nothing that would "absolutely indicate" knowledge or involvement by Iran's leaders.
Iranian officials in Baghdad have denied U.S. allegations that their government supports militant groups in Iraq.
Iraqi fighters have been making their own versions of the weapons, but so far none has been effective against U.S. forces, Odierno said. The Iraqi-made projectiles, using brass and copper melted on stoves, have failed to fully penetrate U.S. armor and are more likely to be used against Iraqi forces, whose vehicles often have thinner armored protection than U.S. vehicles, U.S. military officials said.
"We have not seen a homemade one yet that's executed properly," Odierno said, adding that such weapons are not a major concern "as of yet."
Explosively formed projectiles were first reported used in the Iraq war in 2005 against British forces in the south, but have grown increasingly common, primarily in Baghdad. Before April, the month with the greatest number of projectile attacks was December 2006, with 62, Odierno said.
Overall attacks using roadside bombs doubled in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 and number about 1,200 a month. They cause roughly 70 percent of the casualties suffered by U.S. troops, according to military statistics.
Total strikes by roadside bombs in Baghdad have increased in recent months, said Sgt. 1st Class Stuart Walker, a member of an engineering battalion that clears roads in eastern Baghdad. One reason for the increase, he said, is that there are thousands more U.S. troops in Baghdad. "Before, we didn't present as many targets," said Walker, of the 9th Engineer Battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany.
The use of projectile weapons has risen over time as other types of bombs have become less effective against added U.S. armor, Walker said. He said the work of finding and defusing the bombs, armed with an infrared triggering device, is a constant "cat-and-mouse game," as U.S. forces continually upgrade armor and technological protection, only to learn that fighters have figured out a way around it.
"They have just as good intelligence and communications as we do," said Lt. Keith Alaniz, a platoon leader from Bravo Company of the 9th Engineer Battalion.
The best thing for detecting the projectiles, which are often cleverly camouflaged in plastic foam containers to look like road debris, are "guys and their eyeballs," Walker said.