Troops blast through a bomb-strewn route in Diyala province
DIYALA PROVINCE, Iraq — An Army combat engineer pointed to the side of a paved road riddled with holes in southern Diyala province.
"That’s where the Husky blew up," he said of the spot where one of his platoon’s mine-clearing vehicles hit a roadside bomb. "And that’s where our second Husky got hit," he said as he looked at a crater on the opposite side.
Another soldier coolly chimed in: "No, it was our RG [mine-protective vehicle]. The second Husky was further down."
For the soldiers of the 84th Engineer Company’s 1st Platoon, explosions are their forte. And for long stretches in this violent region, the Visleck, Germany-based unit has had plenty of opportunity to use its expertise.
The soldiers have been tasked with clearing a bomb-infested supply route that runs between Baghdad and Baqouba. Iraqi army soldiers intend to use it as they continue to advance on al-Qaida in Iraq strongholds.
It has been a time-consuming endeavor filled with unexpected bomb blasts. In three days, the platoon has cleared just a four-kilometer stretch. Four armored vehicles have been hit by roadside bombs. And one soldier has sustained injuries that were not life-threatening injuries, with at least one kilometer of road yet to be cleared.
The engineers are approaching the situation with mine-clearing line charges, or MICLICs. The devices launch a rocket attached to a 100-meter-long strand of C4 explosives into a straight line. Then the C4 strand —1,600 pounds’ worth — ignites into a huge fireball, setting off any explosives in its kill zone.
The method was popular against minefields during the first Gulf War. Nowadays it’s rare to see it used in Iraq, soldiers say.
"We’ve been treating it like a minefield," platoon leader 1st Lt. Trevor Needham said of the road. "That’s why we’re using the MICLICs."
After the detonations, soldiers scour the road for traces of bombs not blown up in the colossal blast. About 13 bombs, mainly hooked up to pressure plates, have been found, the company’s executive officer said.
"There could have been a few more that we didn’t know about," said 1st Lt. Erich Schnee, 28, of Auburn, Ala.
Spc. Casey Watson found a roadside bomb the hard way — triggering it with his armored vehicle. The explosion destroyed the engine, blew the hood off and sent a tire 50 feet away.
"My ears were ringing and I had a slight headache," the 22-year-old Atlanta native said. "You know, I’m a soldier. I survived," he added with a grin.
U.S. military intelligence had noticed local Iraqis bypassing a section of the road and turning onto a smaller route in the village of Alawi Kharris Alawi.
On Tuesday, a bulldozer followed by an Iraq army convoy plowed its own way past the road along dusty flatlands nearby.
"We’re moving slowly," acknowledged Needham, 24, of Doylestown, Pa. "The Iraqi army has pushed ahead to the side of the road. That gets them in deeper to catch these guys."
Before leaving for the day, Needham advised Iraqi soldiers to be wary of any areas that haven’t been cleared.
"You don’t think anything is there, but we can’t be sure," he said.
Iraqi army 1st Sgt. Ahmed briefly bragged about his swift, battled-hardened unit, the 1st Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division, which made the makeshift dusty road.
"We get many attacks but we never stop," he said through a translator. "We are fighters."
Needham’s platoon still has orders to clear the road to allow a faster, safer access point for troops chasing insurgents.