Beating the Roadside Bombers
How the Pentagon is fighting back against Iraqi insurgents' most lethal weapon
CAMP SHELBY, MISS. --The platoon of soldiers from the Utah Army National Guard grinds to a halt. Ahead, on the side of the road, lies a small pile of garbage. It's just the kind of place insurgents hide what the military likes to call improvised explosive devices--the roadside bombs that have become the top killer in Iraq. Staff Sgt. Randall Robinson peers through a pair of binoculars. He can't tell if the debris shelters a bomb, so he and another soldier sprint off the road for a better look. Lying on the ground some 50 feet away from the pile, they determine that it's nothing more than rubble. "Looks like garbage," says Robinson, as he returns to the platoon. Suddenly, a loud explosion erupts. Crack-boom.
"Dead, dead, dead," says Sgt. 1st Class Jeremias Osorio, a trainer at Camp Shelby, in south-central Mississippi. Osario points to Robinson and seven other guardsmen: "Take your Kevlar off; you're dead." The garbage was a decoy, and a successful one. The soldiers missed a small red wire visible on top of a recently disturbed pile of straw, a telltale sign of a roadside bomb. Few of the units that have trained at Camp Shelby in preparation for a tour in Iraq have succeeded in spotting the bomb in this exercise, Osario says. "It's a hard thing to detect. We make it that way because that is the reality."
The reality in Iraq is that improvised bombs, made from old Iraqi Army ordnance, have become the insurgency's most favored, and most effective, weapon. Improvised explosive devices planted along the roads or hidden in cars are now perhaps the biggest threat in Iraq. There were 336 reported American military deaths caused by IED s and an additional 89 by various types of suicide or car bombs as of April 29, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a website that tracks military deaths. (The count generally excludes the Marine Corps, which doesn't disclose how its troops are killed.) The numbers are even higher for Iraqis. Last Friday alone, more than three dozen Iraqis died in a bloody series of coordinated roadside and car bomb attacks.
Yard sale. It is not just the toll in dead and injured that makes the roadside and car bombs such effective tools of the insurgency. Bombings create a sense of chaos and make government officials and security forces look incompetent, helpless to stop the mayhem. For that reason, U.S. military leaders believe curbing the bomb attacks is a prerequisite to ensuring the survival of the new Iraqi government.
The nerve center of the military's efforts to stop the bombings lies in a humble set of offices deep in the basement of the Pentagon. Officers have pushed together cast-off desks to create a makeshift conference table, and the rest of the furniture looks like it was grabbed from a yard sale. This is home of the Joint IED Defeat Task Force. Originally formed in October 2003 as an Army organization, it has since been expanded to include representatives of each of the major military services, as well as Britain's defense forces.