U.S. Troops in Iraq Face A Powerful New Weapon

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 10, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 9 -- Suspected Shiite militiamen have begun using powerful rocket-propelled bombs to attack U.S. military outposts in recent months, broadening the array of weapons used against American troops.

U.S. military officials call the devices Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions, or IRAMs. They are propane tanks packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives and powered by 107mm rockets. They are often fired by remote control from the backs of trucks, sometimes in close succession. Rocket-propelled bombs have killed at least 21 people, including at least three U.S. soldiers, this year.

The latest reported rocket-propelled bomb attack occurred Tuesday at Joint Security Station Ur, a base in northeastern Baghdad shared by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. One U.S. soldier and an interpreter were wounded in the attack.

U.S. military officials say IRAM attacks, unlike roadside bombings and conventional mortar or rocket attacks, have the potential to kill scores of soldiers at once. IRAMs are fired at close range, unlike most rockets, and create much larger explosions. Most such attacks have occurred in the capital, Baghdad.

The use of the rocket-propelled bombs reflects militiamen's ability to use commonly available materials and relatively low-tech weaponry to circumvent security measures that have cost the U.S. military billions of dollars. To combat roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs, U.S. and Iraqi troops have set up scores of checkpoints throughout the capital, increased patrols and purchased hundreds of armored vehicles that can resist such attacks.

A June report on the Web site Long War Journal called the explosives-filled propane tanks "flying IEDs."

Militia members and insurgents have at times increased the sophistication of their weapons, but the rocket-propelled bombs are makeshift devices that also have been used in recent years by insurgents in Colombia. Propane tanks are ubiquitous in Iraq, where the fuel is widely used for cooking, making it hard for security forces to stop production of the bombs.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad have noted the use of rocket-propelled bombs in press releases in recent months. But they have not publicly discussed their use or their concerns about the weapons at length because most of the information about them is classified, U.S. military officials said.

"IRAM attacks could be very tragic against us," said Col. William B. Hickman, the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, which operates in northwestern Baghdad. "We take them very seriously."

As the number of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad has begun to drop with the end of the "surge" of additional forces, U.S. military officials are placing a higher percentage of their troops in small outposts in densely populated neighborhoods. U.S. military officials say this is crucial to ensure the continued training of Iraq's security forces, win the trust of the capital's residents and improve local governance. But deployments in small outposts -- some are manned by just one platoon -- also have made soldiers more vulnerable.

To counter the threat posed by rocket-propelled bombs, soldiers have stepped up patrols around outposts, fortified their buildings and offered tens of thousands of dollars for information about networks that use the weapon.

The weapon first emerged as a threat here last fall and has become a top concern in recent months following a series of deadly attacks.

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