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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Base Offers Course on Insurgents' Bombs

Military engineers at a Ft. Irwin seminar study the crude explosive devices that are the single biggest cause of troop deaths in Iraq.

June 16, 2005|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

FT. IRWIN, Calif. — More than 200 military engineers packed grandstands erected on a hill in the heart of this desert combat training center Wednesday to witness the destructive power of the enemy's primary weapon in Iraq: crude bombs built with cellphones and old artillery rounds.

The carefully choreographed demolitions of a 5-ton truck, a sedan and a manikin "suicide bomber" were intended to spur new approaches for combating the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, as they are known in military parlance.

The devices are the single biggest cause of coalition deaths in Iraq, and about half of the U.S. military fatalities in Iraq this year were caused by IEDs, officials said.

In a country with huge ordnance caches -- and a determined insurgency -- such bombs probably will remain a significant threat for years, officials said.

"This is a significant weapon and it poses a major challenge for U.S. forces," said Brig. Gen. Robert W. Cone, Ft. Irwin's commanding officer. "And as soon as we get good at dealing with them, the enemy adapts to our strategies."

The Army's five-day "IED Defeat Seminar" this week was aimed at breaking that cycle by giving military engineers from across the nation a comprehensive look at how the devices are used and the threat they pose.

The seminar began Monday with lectures by officers on their battlefield experiences, and the engineers seemed to hang on every word. Some presentations involved classified information and were held in closed sessions.

On Wednesday, no sooner had the smoke cleared from the fiery demonstration on the desert floor than the engineers -- most of them in uniform -- left the grandstands and hiked down a steep hill to inspect the damage up close.

"These engineers are at the tip of the spear of the IED fight," said Maj. John Clearwater, Ft. Irwin spokesman. "They will take what they learn here and try to find new ways of saving American and Iraqi lives."

Triggered by cellphones, electronic garage door openers, or wires attached to a car battery, the devices have been hidden along roadsides or concealed inside telephone poles, toys, taxis, trash, soda cans, posters of Osama bin Laden, even dead dogs.

More often than not, military officials said, a trigger man and a cameraman are hiding within 300 yards of each device, waiting for the right moment to attack supply convoys and security patrols.

As the war in Iraq continues, insurgents have increased their use of IEDs, military officials acknowledged, and they are now used against not only U.S. soldiers, but Iraqi security forces and civilians as well. The devices have claimed the lives of at least 422 American service members since the war began in 2003, according to an unofficial tally.

"It's a tough fight," said Army Col. Robert J. Davis. "We have to learn as an army to find these guys, and that's a hell of an operation in a complex urban environment."

Like many military speakers at the seminar, Davis gave credit to insurgents for having a special talent for adapting to U.S. countermeasures.

"The folks building these things are very sophisticated," he told the engineers in an earlier meeting. "They need to die, but they are very sophisticated."

The Army has already partnered with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies to develop training programs featuring the same kind of effects used in video games.

New tactics and technologies discussed included the proposed refinement of bullet-proof vests and development of Kevlar pants. The vests, which protect just the chest, may be redesigned to cover portions of the arms.

The military is also exploring the use of ultra-sensitive bomb-detecting machines to find traces of explosives on fingertips or cellphones.

Above all, military leaders hope to break the chain of events that culminates in a bomb attack, from financing and construction to transportation and concealment.

Military leaders here said they had been making progress. Since April 2004, the number of bomb fatalities has decreased 45%, largely because of increased use of armored vehicles, better medical care and improved methods of finding the devices. The casualty rate from improvised bombs has decreased despite an increase in incidents.

Still, a dozen U.S. soldiers were killed by bombs in the last week alone.

Sgt. Manuel Mendoza lost both of his legs Oct. 3 when the armored personnel carrier he was in rolled over a roadside explosive stuffed with five landmines and several mortar rounds, tossing the vehicle 30 feet into the air.

On Wednesday, Mendoza was on hand to greet his unit, the 58th Combat Engineer Company, returning after a year of duty in Iraq. Mendoza, who has been fitted with prosthetic legs, also received a Bronze Star from Cone, the commanding officer.

"I'm very proud of you," Cone said. "We think of you when we work on defeating IEDs."

Mendoza smiled and responded, "This is one of the best days I've had in a long time. I'm ready to get going and start all over again."

Platoon leader Timothy Nix, also of the 58th Combat Engineer Company, survived five bomb explosions during 10 months of duty in Iraq. The fifth one sent him home with shrapnel wounds in his scalp.

In an interview at his home on base, Nix, 25, mused, "I was on patrol when they set it off, and it was the largest IED I had the privilege to be a part of."

It was also recorded by a enemy cameraman who posted footage of the attack on the Internet. Nix watched it for the first time Tuesday.

During the 15-second video, an insurgent can be heard repeating the phrase, Allahu akbar, "God is great," as Nix's armored personnel carrier rumbles down a dirt road. The next sound is the "click" of a wireless transmitter.

"It felt like being hit on the head with a baseball bat," Nix recalled. "Then I blacked out.

"But I'm all right. My angel has been working overtime."

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