CENTRAL IRAQ – A convoy of troop trucks and Humvee patrol vehicles speed for safety across an arid stretch of Iraq under a hot sun, wind whipping past their windows.
Then BANG. A plume of black smoke and arid earth. Trucks grind to a halt and Marines open fire with their rifles.
From TNT to WMD, the history of modern warfare is written in bland acronyms that barely hint of its horrors; the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has offered the language a new one — IED.
The Improvised Explosive Device, or makeshift roadside bomb, is probably the biggest single killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Though far from new in concept nor even as a piece of military jargon, the IED has taken on new significance.
If anything might sap the public’s will to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, it could be these primitive contraptions, which kill or wound dozens each week — relative pinpricks but which ramp up the cost of keeping a huge, high-tech army supplied and mobile.
“It’s a classic insurgent tactic. Bleed us and live to fight another day,” said Major Clint Nussberger, intelligence officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which polices the area of central Iraq immediately south of Baghdad.
On the front line, they put it more bluntly: “These roadside bombs are killing us,” said Navy medic Seamus Marron, whose platoon lost the two Marines to an IED last week, leaving their young comrades rattled and frustrated by a hidden enemy.
“They won’t come out and fight like men,” said a Marine in the unit. Given the U.S. firepower, that is hardly surprising.
Roadside IEDs may account for a third of the U.S. casualties in Iraq, U.S. officers in Baghdad estimate. No official figures are available. There are other threats from car bombs — VBIEDs, as in Vehicle-Borne — and SVBIEDs, for suicide car bombers.
Over 1,000 soldiers have been killed in action, and almost 10 times as many wounded, many maimed for life.
U.S. officers concede there is an all but inexhaustible supply of hidden explosives in Iraq. And breaking the insurgent groups who plant the bombs is proving a mammoth task.
Commanders view the IEDs as more nuisance than threat to their supremacy but daily attacks test troop resolve and mean soldiers can travel only in heavily armored convoys.
The bombing last week was typical of two or three blasts a day to hit the 24th MEU in the north of Babil province, home to a million people and which Nussberger called “the IED capital of Iraq.” Two or three more devices are defused daily.
Saddam Hussein’s main munitions factories were in the area. Most were looted after the war.
In the desert west of the Euphrates, silence follows the blast, broken by the sound of Marines in the convoy racking rifles for action. A burst of M-16 rifle fire goes out at a possible target.
Machine gunners spin their armored turrets above the cabs of the trucks. A heavy cannon round goes out.
More anxious waiting.
In 10 minutes, the sight of a Huey helicopter, door-gunner at the ready, appears above the convoy to bring some relief to those sitting immobile below. Two patrol vehicles have also taken off in pursuit of two men seen running away.
Most roadside bombs in Iraq are triggered from a distance by wireless switch or a cable. That means the bomber must be able to see the convoy, though the reverse is rarely true.
For the bomb squad in north Babil, the constant attacks are exhausting: “We trained for it and everything. But we didn’t expect as much as this,” said Staff Sergeant David Webb of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team.
“Most of the time it’s real simple … But it works.”
Troops have become fairly adept at spotting traces of buried explosive and conduct regular sweeps on foot along roads. But they cannot staunch the flow of explosives in their path.
“We don’t expect at all that we’re anywhere near exhausting their supply,” said MEU spokesman Captain David Nevers.
The Marines’ commander, Colonel Ron Johnson, sees the only solution in painstaking efforts to crack guerrilla networks.
“The guys who place the IEDs are not really the bad guys. We have to connect the dots,” he said.
Until then, the U.S. military’s normally unsung transport corps has had to get used to being in the front line.
“You just go out there every day,” said Corporal Tim Sove, a truck driver who reckons he has survived 10 bombs in six months and spotted a further five before they went off.
“You get good at spotting them. But we never catch the guys.”
(Additional reporting by Thaier al-Sudani)