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Iraq confirms that bomb-sniffing devices don't work

National Police Cpl. Wisam Rizuki Radi uses a controversial device that the Iraqi government purchased to detect explosives at a checkpoint in Jadriyah, Baghdad.
National Police Cpl. Wisam Rizuki Radi uses a controversial device that the Iraqi government purchased to detect explosives at a checkpoint in Jadriyah, Baghdad. (Ernesto Londono/The Washington Post)

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By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 10:31 PM

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi Interior Ministry inspector general recently determined that wands used by police as the frontline defense in the country's fight against bombs are worthless.

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His finding was unsurprising. But in today's Iraq, it had the potential to be politically explosive. What the ministry did in response to the inspector general's conclusion speaks volumes about how the Iraqi government works these days - and why so often it doesn't.

For years, U.S. military officials have called the devices a scam. The British government this year jailed the manufacturer of the ADE-651 gadgets on fraud charges and banned the company from exporting more.

But as damning evidence against the wands mounted, senior Iraqi security officials, including Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, said the critics were uninformed. The officials maintained the devices, which are supposed to detect explosives inside vehicles and prompt police to search them manually, had saved countless lives.

When faced with the inspector general's findings, Interior Ministry officials did not pull the devices from hundreds of checkpoints that snarl traffic around Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Instead, they shelved the report and quietly granted immunity to the official who signed the no-bid contracts, worth at least $85 million.

The only public mention of the finding was a small blurb in the report to Congress submitted by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction last week. The Iraqi ministry's inspector general, Aqeel Al Turaihi, "reports that many lives have been lost due to the wands' utter ineffectiveness," the report said.

The devices remain ubiquitous across Iraq.

Iraqi policeman Mohammed Shaker, 36, said he was not surprised to hear that the devices are a sham. "We all knew they're a failure," he said. "They don't achieve anything. It's all a show for the public."

Turaihi and other ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment sent by e-mail and phone text messages and through aides. Ali al-Dabbagh, the government spokesman, also did not return numerous phone calls.

The controversy began in 2007, when the Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraq's police force, placed its first order from ATSC, a British company. U.S. military officials at the time expressed alarm, saying the device, which has an antenna that is supposed to pivot sideways when it detects explosives, had been debunked as a scam in other countries.

The ministry went ahead with its order, paying as much as $60,000 for each gizmo.

The manufacturer says the wand is powered by static electricity generated when its user marches in place while holding the instrument straight ahead.

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