Mideast edition, Friday, July 27, 2007

KALSU, Iraq — Insurgents in Iraq have begun using a lethal combination of homemade explosives and large buried bombs that have resulted in a series of catastrophic attacks against U.S. troops.

U.S. military officials say that in recent months they’ve seen a rise in the insurgents’ use of “HME,” or homemade explosives, made from fertilizer and other commercially available items. U.S. troops are also encountering more “deep-buried” bombs than at any other time in the past four years.

It’s unclear if there is a direct correlation between the increased use of homemade and deep-buried bombs. Military officers who specialize in tracking bombs say that in 30 percent to 40 percent of all blasts in Iraq, the composition of the explosive mix and their method of ignition remain unknown.

Both homemade and deep-buried bombs appear to be used almost exclusively by Sunni insurgents. Shiite extremists specialize in the use of the “explosively formed projectile,” or EFP, which U.S. commanders in Iraq say are being supplied by elements of Iran’s hard-line regime.

Although EFPs and deep-buried bombs make up only a small percentage of all bomb blasts in Iraq, they are responsible for most casualties, experts say.

“EFPs and deep-buried IEDs constitute about 14 to 15 percent of all IEDs in Iraq, but they cause the vast majority — about 75 to 85 percent — of all casualties,” said Navy Cmdr. Tom Lang, electronic warfare officer for the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which operates south of Baghdad.

More than 3,600 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began. Nearly 1,500 have been killed by IEDs, according to independent researchers with Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

According to the group, which compiles its statistics based on Defense Department press releases and news accounts, 88 U.S. soldiers were killed by IED blasts in May, the worst monthly total so far in the war.

In Sunni-dominated areas from Diyala province northeast of Baghdad to regions south of the capital, U.S. commanders routinely describe deep-buried IEDs as the biggest threat to their troops.

Commanders say insurgents are using the explosives specifically to target tanks, Strykers, Bradleys and other armored vehicles that are built to withstand heavy blasts.

“It’s a trophy kill,” said Maj. Kevin Luke, commander of the 2-5 Military Transition Team, in Diyala province.

In Diyala alone, where fighting has raged since many Sunni militants fled Baghdad earlier this year, deep-buried bombs have been used in several devastating attacks.

In Baqouba, a deep-buried bomb exploded May 6 underneath a Stryker carrying troops from the 3rd Stryker Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. The blast killed six soldiers and a Russian photojournalist. The bomb was buried in a sewer line that ran underneath one of the city’s main markets.

A deep-buried bomb on Memorial Day killed six 6-9 Armored Reconnaissance Squadron troops near Muqdadiyah, northeast of Baqouba, when it exploded underneath their Bradley.

“The soldiers were clearing [the area]; they were using every single mitigating factor,” said Maj. Jeff Settle, the 6-9 Armored Reconnaissance Squadron’s executive officer.

Another deep-buried bomb on May 18 in Tahrir, near Baqouba, killed three soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1-12th Combined Arms Battalion.

“We travel these roads thousands of times, then suddenly a catastrophic IED goes off,” said Lt. Col. Morris Goins, the 1-12th’s commander.

During Operation Arrowhead Ripper, an offensive launched June 18 to clear insurgents from Baqouba, U.S. commanders were so wary of the deep-buried threat that troops conducted only foot patrols until the city’s streets and alleyways had been thoroughly scouted and cleared.

More than 100 bombs were destroyed during the first two weeks of the offensive, including several sites that were known or suspected to contain deep-buried explosives. Many were eliminated by artillery and airstrikes.

In Operation Marne Torch, which began June 15 south of Baghdad, and Operation Marne Avalanche, which began July 15, commanders have taken a similarly cautious approach.

“If it looks bad, we just blow it up,” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of Task Force Marne, which is spearheading the two operations.

According to Col. James Adams, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division deputy commander, troops have discovered at least five other deeply buried bombs and have been tipped off about at least three others since Operation Marne Torch began.

Brigade commanders say they are also finding a significant amount of homemade explosives.

According to a civilian Army contractor with expertise in explosives, insurgents in the region are switching to the use of homemade explosives because the components are readily available and U.S. forces appear to have been successful in interdicting the flow of conventional munitions.

“They’re going to HME because they don’t have the access to the munitions like they did before,” said the contractor, who asked not to be identified because it’s against his company’s policy.

The contractor said HMEs are also relatively easy to make. Common components include fertilizer, nitric acid, acetone and “any kind of oxidizer.”

“HME has been around for some time, but it’s becoming more prevalent because it’s cheap, and they can make large quantities of it,” the contractor said.

Capt. Don Braman, commander of the 25th Infantry Division’s Troop B, 1st Battalion, 40th Cavalry Regiment, said his forces encountered virtually no homemade explosives last October when they arrived near Adwaniyah, a predominately Sunni area just south of Baghdad. By February, however, they began to see it more and more.

Since then, his troops have discovered at least two sites where homemade explosives were being manufactured and three other sites used for drying a fertilizer-based explosive.

“At first, we didn’t know what it was,” Braman said. “They spread the stuff out so that it doesn’t look incriminating.”

Braman said insurgents then add gasoline and another chemicals to create the explosive mix.

“They dry it out and pack it into a five-gallon can, and that’s their bomb,” he said.

“Until you’ve been here for a long time, I don’t think people really give [the insurgents] credit for what they can do,” Braman said.

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