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Poughkeepsie Journal May 06, 2005

Primitive bombs in Iraq pose deadly threat

25% of U.S. troop deaths may be linked to devices

By Nik Bonopartis

One of the the daily dangers U.S. forces face in Iraq can come in the form of a box, a water can, or even trash.

On Wednesday, the family and friends of Cpl. Joseph Tremblay, a 23-year-old New Windsor man, bid farewell to the Marine killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq last week.

Tremblay was the second local man killed in Iraq by these seemingly ubiquitous devices that allow insurgents to strike at U.S. troops from a distance. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Robsky, 31, of Elizaville, was killed on Sept. 10, 2003, while trying to dismantle a bomb near Baghdad.
In all, the crude bombs have claimed the lives of 366 American service members, according to unofficial estimates. The monthly death toll from the devices has held steady — and in some months increased — since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 2003.

Along with rocket attacks, mortars, machine gun fire and suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices are among the biggest threats to American troops. Although the military has units trained to deal with explosives, the workload in Iraq is too heavy for those teams, and the bombs are too scattered — making them the problem of combat soldiers, engineers and convoy commanders in a war without front lines.

Devices cleared

Cpl. Eric Mallardi was part of the assault on Baghdad and initial occupation. His combat engineer battalion accompanied Marine infantry on patrols, clearing explosive devices.

The Hyde Park man said normally-bustling sections of some cities became virtual ghost towns when the residents knew traps had been placed.

On roads, the devices are slipped behind guard rails, stuffed into animal carcasses or made to look like trash.

‘‘Lots of times they’re in abandoned cars,’’ Mallardi said.

‘‘You can almost guarantee if there’s an abandoned car, especially in the middle of the road, there will be an [improvised explosive device].’’
Disarming or detonating the explosive devices can be tricky.

‘‘At times we would disarm a firing device and take it back to the truck and it would ring two minutes later,’’ said Mallardi, who is expected to deploy to Iraq again later this year.

Many also maimed

Along with the troops killed, improvised explosive devices have permanently changed the lives of service members who have been maimed by their intense blasts.

Next week, Marine Capt. Jonathan Kuniholm will travel to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to get fitted for a prosthetic right arm.

The North Carolina man, a combat engineer platoon commander, was on a New Year’s Day foot patrol in Iraq’s Al Anbar province when an improvised explosive device went off.

The bomb was placed on a stone wall inside an olive oil can, the type used by thousands of Iraqis to carry water from the nearby Euphrates. When the platoon passed and the can exploded, it took Kuniholm’s right arm and the life of Brian Parrello, 19, a lance corporal from New Jersey.

‘‘It has its challenges, obviously, but I’m making do with what I’ve got and trying to make the best of it,’’ Kuniholm said. ‘‘I just had what I hope to be my last surgery last week.’’

The U.S. Department of Defense offers no official tally of deaths caused by improvised explosive devices and no statistics on the number of troops wounded by them.

However, according to the independent Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, about one out of every four military deaths in Iraq between July of 2003 and May of this year were caused by improvised explosive devices. The group, which is run by left-leaning activists, compiles its figures using a combination of defense department data and news reports.

January was the deadliest month for those who encountered improvised explosive devices, when 38 troops were killed in the run-up to the Iraqi elections. Overall, there have been nearly 12,000 service members wounded in Iraq, but there are no estimates of how many were wounded from the devices.

Finding an accurate estimate of the devices found in Iraq is also difficult. The defense department issues press releases almost weekly detailing military efforts to find explosives caches, usually several dozen at a time. But officials say they do not know how many such explosive devices have been found overall.

The Coalition Provisional Authority — the transitional power that governed Iraq in the interim after Hussein’s fall — has conducted internal studies of the volume of improvised explosive device attacks, but has not released those studies to the public.
Some weapons date to 1980s

Contributing to the problem is Iraq’s war-torn history. In that country of 26 million people, munitions from conflicts dating back to the early 1980s remain in scattered caches.

“They’ve got weapons systems and no planes to fly them. They have torpedoes and they don’t have submarines. They have all this ordnance and nothing to shoot it with,’’ said Staff Sgt. Jason Perry, a Marine explosive ordnance disposal technician. ‘‘The explosives are already there, and all they need is something to go bang.’’
Perry is among several Marine instructors who brief units on improvised explosive devices before they deploy to Iraq.

Because the majority of explosive traps are hand-made or modified explosive devices, they come in a seemingly infinite number of varieties, military and civilian experts say. Some are modified land mines; others are mortar rounds or artillery pieces rigged to electronic detonators.

Some are radio-controlled, others are hardwired. Some are set to timers and designed to go off at times when convoys are expected to pass. Others are detonated by cell-phone or two-way radio by insurgents watching roads from nearby buildings or garbage dumps.
Much of the ordnance was left over from previous wars and conflicts, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based analysis group. That includes ordnance from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, land mines and warheads from the Gulf War and explosives that have been used throughout Saddam’s reign to control what were semi-autonomous Kurdish communities in the north of the country.

‘‘Iraq was a big ammo dump before the war,’’ said Francois Boo, a research analyst with GlobalSecurity. ‘‘Getting access to the materials that they would need to create improvised explosive devices is not a problem for the insurgents.’’

Insurgents have access to local black markets, but because of the sheer volume of explosives scattered throughout the country for decades, it’s unlikely they need to tap those markets regularly, Boo said. Rather, he said, most of what insurgents have stockpiled was looted before and after the war, as the U.S. military had yet to secure many ordnance sites.

More than two years after the invasion, ‘‘the U.S. has a good handle on the ammunition side of things,’’ he said. Still, troops often come across smaller stockpiles and have a backlog of explosives to get rid of.

‘‘We’re talking about millions of pounds of explosives that we’re trying to get rid of weekly,’’ Perry said.

Keeping up with the tactics insurgents employ is another job altogether.

For troops on the ground, their biggest defense is awareness — patterns of disturbed dirt on the ground, wires jutting from garbage and packages by the side of the road, and even the reaction of Iraqis who aren’t consciously trying to warn their American occupiers.
Part of the tactic of using the devices is to keep troops guessing. Insurgents may forgo the obvious placement of an improvised explosive devices in an abandoned car to make a patrol or convoy move to the other side of the road, where the real threat lies.
“It’s more nerve-wracking than being shot at, because when you’re getting shot at you know where it’s coming from,’’ Mallardi said.
Kuniholm agrees.

‘‘The anticipation and worrying about it is actually more stressful than dealing with it,’’ he said. ‘‘Otherwise, it’s simply a game of trying to anticipate every conceivable possibility. That can end up being an obsessive compulsive nightmare.’’

He tried to anticipate the threat. In his civilian life, he is a partner in a design company. Before deploying to Iraq, his partners built him a camera-equipped remote-control robot to perform reconnaissance on suspicious objects. The robot allowed Kuniholm and his Marines to get a close look without putting themselves in danger.

‘‘The irony of it is I lost my arm to an [improvised explosive device], but it wasn’t a situation where we would have used the robot,’’ he said.


Copyright 2005, Poughkeepsie Journal