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Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas' Choice

July 06, 2003|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

The rocket-propelled grenades used in a flurry of attacks against American forces in Iraq are among the world's most widely available weapons, and an armament of choice for guerrilla groups and terrorist organizations.

Rocket-propelled grenades -- the most common model is called the RPG-7 -- were used in several attacks by anti-American Iraqi forces last week. In Baghdad on Thursday, a man popped up through the sunroof of a white Toyota and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Army Humvee, wounding three soldiers.

On June 10, one American soldier was killed and another wounded when Iraqi attackers fired RPGs at a squad manning a weapons collection point in Baghdad. American forces have dubbed one stretch of road near the capital "RPG Alley" due to the frequent attacks on troops moving through the area.

"Everybody is looking for weapons of mass destruction, but meanwhile Iraq is awash in RPGs," said former CIA officer Milton Bearden. "They are every insurgent army's favorite sound and light system."

RPGs have been used extensively against American troops in other parts of the world. During the war in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters downed several helicopters with RPGs, leading to the deaths of at least seven soldiers. In October 1993, Somali irregulars used RPGs to bring down two Black Hawk helicopters carrying Rangers and Delta Force commandos. Eighteen American soldiers were killed in an ensuing firefight.

The RPG-7 was designed by the Ministry of Defense of the Soviet Union and introduced into the Red Army during the 1970s. A September 2002 report by Forecast International, a Connecticut-based defense consulting group, described it as "one of the most successful weapons of its type ever manufactured," and said it had "turned up almost everywhere in the world, used in all levels of conflict from terrorist ambushes to major wars."

The Soviets sold or provided RPG-7s to at least two dozen of their allies, from Cuba to Vietnam. They allowed a number of countries to produce the weapon under licensing agreements, mostly Eastern Bloc partners including Bulgaria and Romania, but also allies such as Iraq, where the RPG-7 was dubbed the Al Nassira. Meanwhile, China and Pakistan knocked off their own copies.

The Forecast International report says millions of RPGs have been manufactured worldwide -- Russia and a handful of other countries still produce it -- and "few other programs can match [it] for extent of distribution." It is currently in the arsenal of 107 nations, from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Numerous terrorist groups have obtained RPG-7s on the global weapons black market, where one can be purchased for as little as $200, about one-eighth the official price.

The RPG-7 gained international notoriety in 1981, when German radicals used it in the attempted assassination of Gen. Frederick Kroesen, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. Kroesen's car was hit, though he was only slightly injured. The Irish Republican Army has also used RPG-7s in its operations. And in 1998, Georgian rebels fired them on the motorcade of President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who escaped unharmed.

"They are easy to get," said a former senior CIA official who is familiar with the illegal arms business. "It's like owning a cell phone."

As the name suggests, the rocket-propelled grenade brings together the explosive impact of a hand grenade with the thrust and force of a rocket. The launcher measures about 3 feet in length. It fires a conical, rocket-propelled round capable of penetrating military vehicles. The charge, about the size of a soda can, destroys its targets with a combination of explosive power and shrapnel. When armed, an RPG-7 weighs about 20 pounds.

Bearden, the ex-CIA officer, worked with Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s. He said the effective range of an RPG-7 is about 300 yards.

"During target practice, I've seen teenage Afghan kids nailing the outline of a tank at that range," he said. "They're so easy to operate -- it's a dream weapon for insurgents."

Under Saddam Hussein, RPG-7s were distributed to every unit of the Iraqi army, as well as the elite Republican Guard and paramilitary units. When the Iraqi army disbanded in the face of the U.S.-led assault, large numbers of RPGs went missing as soldiers walked off with all the equipment they could carry. The arms have turned up at markets in Baghdad and other cities.

Iraqis soldiers fired RPGs in droves during the main fighting against the allied invasion, but to little effect. Most modern American tanks and infantry vehicles are heavily armored, and capable of withstanding a direct hit from an RPG round.

With American and British forces serving as occupiers, the RPG has become an ideal weapon for Iraqi guerrilla fighters. It can be effective against a jeep or helicopter, as well as against military and economic targets ranging from buildings and bunkers to oil pipelines and power transformers.

Thousands of RPGs have been seized at arms depots by American troops in Iraq. But Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in northern Iraq, said they are likely to pose a significant threat to U.S. forces as long as fighting continues.

"RPGs are omnipresent in Iraq. They're almost as common as an AK-47 [assault rifle]," Baer said. "No one has an inventory of them, and they are going to be impossible to root out."

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