Death by roadside bomb

As the military admits again that it has been slow to provide armor to the troops, a "surging" insurgency improves its skills with improved explosive devices.

By Tim Grieve
Published June 22, 2005 12:21PM (EDT)

An American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq yesterday. If those words sound familiar, they should. Another American solider was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq Monday; two more American soliders were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq last Thursday; and five more American soliders were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on the day before that.

Insurgents in Iraq are relying more and more on the roadside bombs the military calls improvised explosive devices -- and they're getting a lot better at building them. According to a report in today's New York Times, insurgents used IEDs against U.S. troops about 700 times in May, the highest number since the United States invaded the country in 2003. The attacks have left at least 68 American soldiers dead since May 1. That's the highest two-month IED death toll so far, and there's still a week to go in June.

Military officials tell the Times that the surge in attacks has come at a time when the insurgents are making what the Times calls "significant advances in bomb design, including the use of 'shaped' charges that concentrate the blast and give it a better chance at penetrating armored vehicles."

That presupposes, of course, that the vehicles carrying U.S. troops are armored in the first place. Pentagon officials tell the Times that unarmored Humvees are now restricted to bases in Iraq, but a report from the Marine Corps' inspector general earlier this week found that a quarter of the Humvees assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, which is working in the dangerous Al Anbar province, lack the armor the Marines need. At a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, two top Marine Corps officials said a "lack of leadership" was to blame for delays in getting Humvees armored, and they promised that all Marine vehicles in Iraq would be adequately protected by December. Lawmakers -- not to mention the troops -- have reason to be skeptical: As the Philadelphia Inquirer discovered earlier this year, Army officials were claiming that all of the Army's 35,000 vehicles in Iraq were armored when approximately 11,700 were protected by nothing more than "crudely cut sheets of steel, inadequate by the Army's own standards."

But even armored Humvees provide little protection from the insurgents' improved IEDs. A source told the Times that the bombs used in two recent IED attacks "were so big that there was little left" of armored Humvees after they were hit. And it's not just that the new bombs are bigger; it's that they're harder to avoid in the first place. In addition to the shaped charges, insurgents are now using sophisticated infrared detonators rather than garage-door openers or cellphones to set off their explosives. The infrared detonators can't be jammed so easily, the Times says, and their use "underscores the insurgents' resourcefulness."

The insurgents "certainly appear to be surging right now," says Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the leader of the military's anti-IED task force and a man who clearly didn't get Dick Cheney's talking points about the beginning of the end in Iraq. On May 31, Cheney declared that we're seeing "the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." The next day, another American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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