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U.S. Soldiers Try to Thwart Bomb Makers

American troops in Iraq are working to intercept materials used to make improvised explosives.

August 18, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — Lt. Dan Stuewe knows that the hallowed ground of an Islamic cemetery is normally off-limits for U.S. soldiers. But one day last week at 4:30 a.m., his squad from the 101st Airborne Division bent the rules and slowly combed through a burial ground near their battalion headquarters, searching for artillery and mortar shells.

Anti-American guerrillas pick up shells left for them by other insurgents and turn them into makeshift bombs -- what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. These remote-controlled bombs have become their weapon of choice, a United Nations security analysis reports, and are taking an increasing toll on coalition forces.

The weapon has been so effective that U.S. troops now come every morning to check the cemetery, part of their new counter-guerrilla routine, one this elite attack force didn't train for and didn't expect to be carrying out.

"We have altered our tactics," said Maj. James P. Shaver, of Statesboro, Ga., who is the second in command of the 2nd Battalion in the Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade. "We're sending a signal we will keep pressure on the area and that we are watching."

About 7,000 soldiers are in Mosul, and while security is generally better here than in other cities in Iraq, Shaver said the improvised explosive devices represent a new phase of the conflict.

They are a "more sophisticated method of attack than your everyday Iraqi who runs up to a police station or military compound and lets go with a grenade or an RPG," he said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade.

On Thursday, a makeshift bomb killed a British soldier in the southern city of Basra. Two days before, a soldier with the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment died and two others were hurt in the central Iraqi city of Ramadi when their convoy hit three such improvised bombs strung together.

On Aug. 10, another device killed a 4th Infantry Division soldier near a police station in Tikrit, north of Baghdad. And on Aug. 7, a U.S. soldier with the 1st Armored Division lost a leg to one in a Baghdad market district.

On July 23, a makeshift bomb strapped to a telephone pole killed Sgt. Brett Christian of Stuewe's company as the sergeant drove a loaded troop transport truck down Highway 1, which fronts the cemetery in Mosul. The road has been dubbed "ambush alley" for the increasing number of attacks along it. Maj. Mike Shervington, a British officer attached to the 101st Airborne, said Mosul was relatively quiet until July 22, when coalition forces killed Saddam Hussein's two sons here. Now, he said, the highway has become a favored "target of opportunity."

"Highway 1 is a key transit route for coalition forces. It goes to Syria and also to our weapons range, nine miles out of Mosul," Shervington said. "It's also the way to the prison we are building in Badush. Bottom line is, it's just a vital road into the city and south to Baghdad."

How much damage the attacks cause and how long they will continue depends in part on how well soldiers such as Stuewe and his charges do their jobs. Since Christian's death, they have found five unexploded improvised bombs but have had three others set off at them, luckily to no major effect.

Sgt. Darrin Griffin, a battalion explosives specialist, said attackers use artillery or large mortar shells because they are easy to convert to remote-control bombs and safer than land mines to handle.

"They have been taking out the fuse at the top of the shell that detonates the main charge after it flies through the air and hits the ground. They replace it with one of their own, usually a blasting cap," Griffin said. "That and a 9-volt battery, which produces a current strong enough to ignite the cap, is all you need."

To trigger the device, the guerrillas often use wire, hundreds of yards long, that can be activated from a distant lookout point, like the sloping ridge on the far edge of the cemetery. Or, Griffin said, the bombs are triggered with remote devices such as a car alarm, garage door opener or beeper, which can send voltage to the blasting cap.

The attackers typically lean the charge against something that faces the target, such as a light pole or cement curb, since the blast will take the path of least resistance.

Lt. Chris Wood of Buffalo, N.Y., was riding in the front seat of the troop transport truck July 23 when the shell exploded, killing Christian, 27.

They "were over a part of the road with high ground on either side when it happened," Wood said. "I didn't see the explosion, just felt the blast and debris in my face. I thought we were being ambushed, so I turned to Sgt. Christian to tell him to step on the gas. But when I turned to him, he was already dead."

Wood added that if the shell had exploded a half-second later, the bomb would have killed five or six of the 18 soldiers riding in the back, and wounded more. That day, a second unexploded makeshift bomb was found a few hundred yards farther down Highway 1.

Soldiers think the widespread use of the devices and similarities in their design across Iraq may mean those who deploy them are being trained by a central authority. That belief was reinforced by results of a sweep called Ivy Lightning last week around Tikrit by a task force of U.S. Army units from the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division.

The operation netted 180 heavy artillery shells, five tank rounds and several heavy mortar shells that had been stored for apparent use as IEDs.

The sweep also resulted in the detention of two suspects thought to be organizing resistance and possibly the use of the devices, said Lt. Col. Bill MacDonald, task force spokesman.

On Sunday, U.S. troops shut down a major bomb factory near Tikrit and arrested two people, Associated Press reported.

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