The Iraq war's defining
weapon By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - The threat posed by Iraq's
reported possession of weapons of mass destruction
was the excuse US President George W Bush gave for
his invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it is the
simplest of technologies - the roadside bomb -
that has emerged as the biggest nightmare for US
occupation forces in Iraq.
explosive device (IED), which is the insurgents'
weapon of choice in Iraq, has accounted for more
than half of all
injuries and deaths in combat since March 2003 -
by far the single greatest cause of death for US
According to Pentagon
figures through January 21, IEDs have accounted
for at least 894 of the 1,735 US military deaths
(51%) by hostile fire and over 9,200 of the more
than 16,500 wounded (56%).
It is being
described as the defining weapon of the war in
Iraq, lethal though low in technological
sophistication. The IED is a simple weapon, easy
and cheap to build, and easier to hide. This makes
it an attractive weapon for insurgents.
IED is often just some old artillery shells
detonated by remote control or by an electric
charge through an attached wire. In Iraq, IEDs
have been remotely detonated using readily
available doorbells, cellular phones, pagers, car
alarms, garage-door openers, toy-car remotes and
so on. They are hidden alongside roads in
potholes, rubbish heaps, discarded cartons, drink
cans and animal carcasses.
As with other
aspects of the war in Iraq, it is the Iraqis who
are bearing the brunt. Iraqi soldiers are far more
vulnerable to IEDs than the Americans as the
vehicles they drive are not armored.
suicide bombings grab media attention for their
spectacular impact, it is roadside bombings that
are far more numerous in Iraq, and their frequency
has grown dramatically over the past two years.
There were about 10,600 roadside bombings in 2005,
nearly twice the number that occurred in 2004.
This means that on an average, 30 roadside
bombings are carried out per day across Iraq.
Not surprisingly, deterring IED attacks is
an important component of the US military effort
in Iraq. The Joint IED Defeat Task Force that was
set up in October 2003 was recently expanded and
put under the charge of a four-star general,
signaling the priority that the Pentagon is
according the fight against the roadside bombs.
The task force's budget has grown from US$600
million in 2004 to $1.2 billion in 2005 and is
expected to triple this year to about $3.5
Media reports citing US
government sources say that while the number of
IED attacks has grown over the past two years, US
countermeasures seem to be working in reducing the
number of fatalities.
Statistics give a
different story, however. The number of fatalities
from IEDs rose steadily all of last year,
according to the Iraq index compiled by the
Washington-based Brookings Institution. While the
number of IED fatalities per month was in single
digits in 2003, it surged in 2004 and grew
significantly throughout 2005, averaging more than
30 deaths a month last year.
efforts to detect and neutralize IEDs have no
doubt increased, but so has the ingenuity of the
insurgents. Insurgents have refined their
techniques with regard to construction,
concealment and detonation of devices. The
lethality and sophistication of IEDs have also
In 2003, IEDs were little more
than artillery shells that, when exploded, caused
an extensive blast and scattered shrapnel
indiscriminately. But these were less effective in
piercing armored targets. Then the insurgents
started packing the IEDs with more explosives,
even nails, ball bearings, glass and gravel -
eventually using anti-tank missiles instead of
Since early 2005,
insurgents have been using a "shaped charge", an
IED adapted to concentrate the force of the blast,
giving it a better chance of piercing armored
vehicles. Describing the capacity of the
shaped-charge IED, John Pike, director of US
defense policy group GlobalSecurity.org, told the
BBC News website that it could "go through the
heaviest armor like a hot knife through butter".
Insurgents have also advanced with regard to the
detonators they use. With the US forces using
electronic jammers to block radio-wave detonators,
they have moved on to using infra-red lasers.
For US troops in Iraq, the most unsafe
place seems to be inside their vehicles. Instead
of using vehicles that could set off a
pressure-detonated IED, the US forces are opting
for foot patrols. The insurgents have responded to
that by laying IEDs near likely foot paths.
The battle of the roadside bombs in Iraq
is not just about detonating or defusing IEDs. It
is about innovation and counter-innovation,
ingenuity and guile. And the insurgents seem
always a step ahead.
Ramachandran is an independent
journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.