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Insurgents' bombs exact physical, mental toll

Lethal devices being placed in toys, dead dogs

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- In this bedeviled country, even dead dogs bite.

 

Insurgents are going to desperate lengths to camouflage the roadside bombs that have become their signature weapon of attack on US military patrols and convoys, using everything from rusty oil drums, plastic toys, heaps of rotting refuse, a stack of cinderblocks, and in at least one incident, the carcass of a dog. Dead sheep have been similarly used.

The improvised explosive devices -- or IEDs, as the military calls them -- have become the most potent psychological weapon in the arsenal of the Saddam Hussein loyalists waging guerrilla war against the occupying superpower.

"In the early days, the bad guys just dug holes by the road and buried a couple of daisy-chained mortar rounds hitched to a trigger," said Specialist Andrew Harrington of Salem, Mass., whose comrades have been killed and wounded by bombs planted along roads near Fallujah and other settlements in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the region west and north of Baghdad where support for Hussein burns hottest.

"But soldiers who want to remain living, breathing soldiers have gotten awfully good at spotting signs of a fresh dig or an unnaturally placed object," he said. "So now [the insurgents] are putting bombs in just the nastiest places. Anywhere you wouldn't think to look -- or wouldn't want to look -- that's where they're going to put an IED."

It's the most frightening insurgent weapon to the American men and women patrolling urban streets and desert tracks.

The contrivances are homemade but extremely lethal, usually fashioned from explosives removed from conventional ordnance -- such as mortar rounds or artillery shells -- and connected to detonators triggered by remote control, either direct wire or a radio device. Cruder bombs have been rigged to egg timers.

The concern that the ground might literally explode beneath one's feet or vehicle is somehow more nerve-rattling, the troops say, than the prospect of a small-arms ambush or even a rocket-propelled grenade assault.

"The hajis, man, they can make the pavement blow," said Specialist Demis Fontes of Klamath Falls, Ore., using the term that has become standard soldier slang for the insurgents. "The hajis can take some C-4 [explosive] and wiring from an old doorbell and turn it into your ding-dong death sentence."

The IEDs are as indiscriminate as they are dangerous. Well-timed blasts have turned armored Humvees into charred hulks of twisted metal. But the bombs also have killed civilians, including two passengers and the driver aboard a crowded minibus that was passing an American convoy in Baghdad on Dec. 5. Insurgents triggered a powerful charge hidden under debris in the median strip.

"These improvised bombs are meant to be killing Americans, but they take so many innocent Iraqis," Iraqi police Captain Samee Hami said at the scene of that blast. "It is a new terror that Saddam's followers have unloosed on our poor land."

Smaller bombs have been concealed inside empty soda cans, garbage sacks, and toys. In one incident, insurgents packed explosives into the plastic frames of tricycles. No one was injured in the explosion.

In a recent raid on the home of a suspected bombmaker, US troops seized remote-controlled toy cars they believe were being prepared to carry explosive charges.

Placing an IED is significantly less risky for an insurgent than firing on American troops. Nonetheless, military intelligence officers contend the bombs are seldom placed by the insurgents themselves. Instead, they pay unemployed young men a few dollars to conceal the devices.

The US military said it has no hard figures on how many American troops have been killed or injured by IEDs, but command officers estimate that dozens have been killed and a few hundred have been wounded.

"The enemy has been extremely innovative in making these devices and goes to great length to conceal them," said Lieutenant Colonel Dick A. Larry, commander of the 79th Ordnance Battalion, a unit composed of Army, Navy, and Air Force volunteers who destroy captured munitions and disarm IEDs discovered by patrols. "We've found these things rigged on the roads, near schoolyards, on footpaths, beside mosques."

The dead-dog ruse was discovered when a soldier on patrol near Fallujah saw wires leading from the carcass, according to a squadron officer. The dog's body was packed with explosives, nails, strips of barbed wire, and bits of sheet metal. A bomb squad disarmed the device.

"A bomb can be hidden anywhere," said Captain Jean-Pierre Brown of Hampton Roads, Va., a fire control officer with the First Armored Division who recently lost a friend in a roadside blast.

"I have come to hate garbage in a whole new way," Brown said. "Everywhere else in the world, litter is unsightly and garbage smells. But in Iraq, it kills."

Riding with the troops, one can feel the fear of the roadside bombs. Specialist Fontes was driving the point vehicle, a lightly-armored Humvee, recently in a supply convoy heading northwest of the capital. The trip as far as Ramadi was a breeze, as the group cruised along Route 10 to a mix of 1960s Motown and country music blaring from a boom box set among ammunition clips, candy bars, water bottles, maps, dusty compact discs, and communications gear.

But the tension rose as the convoy turned onto Highway 12, the narrow "ambush alley," twisting through towns where graffiti supporting Hussein and vowing to kill Americans adorn walls. In the turret, Private First Class Daniel Hood of Columbia, S.C., hunched behind a .50-caliber machine gun, swiveling the barrel left to right, right to left.

In the front passenger seat, Lieutenant Eric Reid of Albany, N.Y., commander of the convoy, switched off the boom box and snapped on a "Warlock," a transmitter whose signal might disarm radio-detonated bombs.

"It's meant to jam certain kinds of triggers," Reid said as the convoy roared through a crowded bazaar in the village of Hit. Young boys made pistols of their forefingers and thumbs or pantomimed the shooting of a shoulder-fired rocket at the passing Americans.

But on this day, the 40-mile sprint up Highway 12 would be a milk run; no bullets were fired upon the convoy, no rockets, no bombs.

"This is sweet as it gets: When you arrive where you want to be going in one piece," Hood said.

Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein after his capture by US forces. (Reuters Photo)
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