In Iraq, car bombs seen as growing threat
BAGHDAD — Car bombs are increasingly becoming the nerve-firing new threat in Iraq.
They are more indiscriminate than the old roadside bombs, soldiers say.
They’re also bigger and deadlier. Roadside bombs usually target a specific vehicle as it drives over the trap. Not so with car bombs, which can be remotely detonated or driven into crowds.
According to U.S. figures, nearly 30 international or Iraqi troops died in car bomb attacks last month. October began on the same dissonant note. On Monday, car bombs near the fortified International Zone, the former Green Zone, and in the heart of Baghdad killed about 20 people and injured maybe 100 more.
The threat of cars as weapons of urban destruction is a migraine for soldiers. Troops are the targets. They are also the ones who decide whether to open fire on a speeding driver and the ones first on the scene after an attack.
Soldiers from the Oregon National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment, were about two miles away from Monday’s second blast. They still heard it. They’re almost used to it now.
That’s why Staff Sgt. Robert Sotir reacted to the carnage with an exhale. This time at least his guys weren’t there when it happened.
“It’s sad to say,” Sotir said, face shining with sweat, “but it’s a relief.”
Sotir wasn’t there when the silver Opel sped into the crowd, so he didn’t have to think about whether to shoot it. But he and other soldiers carry the weight of past decisions in their guts like swallowed buckshot.
“You’re a little desensitized,” Sotir said, but “you have bad dreams. I kinda wonder whether I’ll still have bad dreams when I go home.”
In August, Sotir shot a father and son because he believed he had to do it. A car drove through the soldiers’ perimeter. There was a warning shot. The car kept coming. Sotir opened fire. He hit the father in the shoulder and the 12-year-old boy in the head.
“I was messed up for a while,” Sotir said, “but once I found out they were all right …”
The father survived and so did the boy. The bullet traveled around the curve of the boy’s skull and lodged in the back of his neck. Sotir has a 12-year-old son himself.
They had no bombs. But Sotir, not knowing, did as he was trained to do.
“Sometimes being right still hurts,” Sotir said.
Monday’s attack showed what could have happened.
A blackened van owned by a Western security firm was hit directly by the blast. Five people were inside, according to the soldiers. Three survived, though the street was littered with remains afterward. No Americans were reported among the dead.
A car had sped toward the van, the soldiers said, and apparently had stopped. Someone from the car fired a weapon and shouted, “This is day you’re going to die.”
Then came the fireball, and everything went to hell.
Spc. Martin Miller pulled out a video camera to show the aftermath, scorched concrete jerking on the LCD screen. Half the blown-up Opel had embedded itself into the second story of a building.
“That was something else,” Miller said. “It actually still had the side mirror attached to it.”
A spokesman for multinational forces in Iraq, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Grill, said it’s difficult to predict when to expect trouble. You have to expect it every day and hope you’re wrong.
“Every day is different,” Grill said. “There will be days when nothing happens. There will be days when several things happen. Every day, every moment, has the possibility of something happening. And we are living in a war zone.”
Sgt. 1st Class James Terrel would agree. He was in charge Monday. All of it reminded him of the luckiest, saddest day of his life.
It was Sept. 12, the day a car passed his convoy, jumped lanes, then detonated in front of a parked security team of soldiers and Iraqis on the other side.
The blast left a hole 6 feet deep and 12 feet wide. It picked up a Humvee and tossed it 10 feet into the air and 10 feet to the left, then split it in half. Two other car bombs had been set to go off simultaneously. One failed to blow, but the other did.
Terrel and his convoy survived, but at a cost. Terrel’s gunner wanted to shoot the quick-moving car. Terrel chose not to OK this. The car was moving fast and light, not slow and low-riding like most lugging explosives.
“It might be a drunk,” Terrel said. “You just can’t shoot every car.”
Bodies littered the highway. Terrel’s troops cared for some of the victims: three Iraqi National Guard members, two U.S. soldiers and a local woman and her baby. One of the guards died, Terrel believes. The baby’s scalp was peeled away.
If the car bomber had detonated near Terrel’s convoy, the blast would have set off a 5,000-gallon fuel truck. Things would have been even worse. Terrel said he’s thankful that didn’t happen.
Opening fire on the car may have also set it off, blowing the tanker. Or maybe it would have stopped the whole attack, and everyone would be fine today.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. What if, what if, what if. Terrel has just had to accept it.
“It was my lucky day,” he said. “It was their unlucky day.”