Iraq’s Biggest Killer: Up Close & Personal

August 23rd, 2005 - by admin

Pamela Hess / UPI – 2005-08-23 23:38:20

FALLUJAH, Iraq (August 22, 2005 ) — From a comfortable distance, safe behind an explosives ordnance disposal team, an improvised explosive device is an interesting thing to see blown up.

First, the earth seems to belch a sooty mushroom cloud. It fills with fire, and then there is an enormous, teeth-rattling boom. The whole process takes less than a second, but the brain remembers it frame by frame.

The devastation from such a small package is remarkable: a foot-deep crater in the asphalt, a truck tire vaulted over a line of buildings, shrapnel and rubber flung for 50 meters all around. This is the best kind of introduction to something you never want to meet again on the roads of Iraq.

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs — in this case, a 155mm mortar round rigged to a detonator and concealed in a feedbag on the side of the main street in Fallujah — cause 70 percent of all coalition deaths and injuries.

That Maj. Scott Ward, 38, of Bath, N.Y., was a comfortable distance from the bomb is to the credit of an alert Iraqi sergeant. It is also pure luck.

Eighteen days from going home after nine months in Fallujah, Ward, a father of three, keeps repeating: “I was standing right next to it.”

Ward, his small team of American military mentors assigned to the Iraqi army battalion brought up to keep security in Fallujah, and about 15 soldiers stopped on the road codenamed “Fran” to discuss their patrol. They pulled up next to the truck tire, which sat on an expanse of litter-free road.

Tucked under it was the white bag. Ward didn’t notice. Thankfully, Sgt. Amar Hamud did. He poked it with his hand, then kicked it with his foot. There was something metal and heavy inside.

“IED!” he shouted, and the group of men scattered. They set up a cordon around the area, waving cars away, and called the explosives team to come investigate. In the meantime, the Iraqi soldiers started drifting closer to the bomb and some lost their focus. One found a shaded veranda nearby to sit on.

Staring at the scene it becomes plainly obvious that this was not just random trash. An orange-jump suited Iraqi work crew, paid by US military funds, has been sweeping this stretch of street. There is no debris anywhere near it. Ward suspects someone on the street cleaning team might actually be involved in the increased presence of IEDs on Fran. Some of them have been dug into the ground, something that would be hard to pull off on the sly unless the shovel man had a legitimate reason to be out there.

In about an hour, the explosives ordnance disposal team showed up. They responded to over 200 IEDs in the last two months — 13 in their first three days on the job.

The team unpacked a robot about he size of a child’s wagon, with tracked wheels, an arm, and a camera. The group retreated behind their up-armored Humvees to watch the video screen. The robot poked the bag, dragged the tire, wheeled around and moved back in. It was carrying a C-4 charge. The plan was to put the C-4 about a foot from the bag and detonate it. If this were more than just garbage, the explosion would leave the IED mostly intact so they could see what kind of technology was being used.

The team leader admits he used to get attached to the remote-controlled robots, which are very cute and seem quite brave. He gave up becoming emotionally involved after the first one was blown to bits.

The robot was approaching the bag again when it exploded without warning, charring the robot, breaking its arm and camera and blowing off one of its tracks, which landed about 30 feet away. The team leader let out a string of expletives.

“There’s a trigger man!”

The team scattered again, this time to search nearby houses.

It was then that the difference in discipline and training between US forces and the new Iraqi army became clear — and the challenge for the American trainers evident.

The Iraqis wander from house to house, allowing military age men to run inside and shut their gates behind them. One man who had been watching the entire proceedings enters his front gate and re-emerges with a baby whom he kisses lavishly, as if to prove he is only a concerned parent, not a bomber.

When the Iraqi soldiers finish a cursory search of that house they stand at the corner and chat, awaiting direction to check the next one.

1st Sergeant Rolan Garrahan, 50, screams red-faced at the soldiers to search a second house. He has peeked over the gate and it is filled with laughing young men.

“You can forget it if they go into search and there is a woman inside,” Ward said — this despite the fact they found a woman hiding five hand grenades in her cookie jar. “It’s not out of respect for the woman,” said Garrahan, a burly red-head with a profound love for Corvettes. “It’s out of respect for the man, because he owns the woman.

“What this place needs is a big dose of women’s rights,” Garrahan says, on more than one occasion. He sounds a little surprised at himself. After a fruitless search, the Iraqi teams give up, having found nothing. But the Iraqis are heroes today nevertheless, having saved the Americans and their own colleagues from certain death.

“Because I’m a soldier I have to pay attention to everything,” says Sgt. Amar, pleased and proud to have located his third IED. One of the Iraqi lieutenants in the company has torn apart two of them with his bare hands, a practice Ward is trying to discourage. As he is with shooting into the air at intersections to keep them clear of cars, which the Iraqis are now doing with great abandon. “It’s a method, it’s just not the preferred method,” he says.

It was spectacular good luck that the triggerman was not prepared to detonate the device while the patrol stood unaware, going over that day’s mission again: to patrol route Fran and keep it free of IEDs.

About 50 meters down the road is where a car bomb exploded 10 days ago, killing two nephews of a leading tribal sheik. A little farther is a charred mark of asphalt where on June 23 five US troops were killed by an IED.

“They really took care of us today,” Ward says, proudly.

The Iraqis know it, and about 10 pile into the back of their unarmored Nissan pick-up truck — a gift from the government of Japan. They are standing tall, arms around each other, and brothers in arms.

“That’s a bomber’s wet dream, right there,” says Garrahan, shaking his head as he lurches behind them in a heavily armored Humvee. “One good guy with an AK-47 could knock ’em out.”

“(With) that or a bowling ball,” says his gunner.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncomercial, educational purposes.