U.S. troops in Iraq try to walk away from peril
U.S. troops working the streets of the capital fear one Iraqi weapon more than others -- a copper-plated explosive that can penetrate armor and has proved devastating to Humvees and even capable of severely damaging tanks.
The power of what the military calls an EFP -- for explosively formed penetrator, or projectile -- to spray molten metal balls that punch through the armor on vehicles has some American troops rethinking their tactics. They are asking whether the U.S. should give up its reliance on making constant improvements to vehicle defenses.
Instead, these troops think, it is time to leave the armor behind -- and get out and walk.
“In our area, the biggest threat for us is EFPs. When you are in the vehicles, you are a big target,” said Army Staff Sgt. Cavin Moskwa, 33, of Hawaii, who patrols Baghdad’s Zafraniya neighborhood with the Bravo Battery of the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment. “But when you are dismounted ... you are a lot safer.”
In the last three days, 15 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, nine of them in two powerful roadside bomb blasts. The military does not publicly identify the kind of weapon used in improvised explosive attacks, but the deadly nature of the blasts Wednesday and Thursday suggested that EFPs may have been used.
The deaths brought to 3,545 the total number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq theater since the March 2003 American-led invasion, the U.S. military said. Hundreds of these troops have been killed by EFPs and other kinds of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The Pentagon’s most recent Iraq status report said EFP attacks were at an all-time high.
Foot patrols, of course, are not a fail-safe method. On city streets, snipers remain a threat. And bombs can still kill dismounted troops. But when blasts occur in the middle of a foot patrol, the number of casualties are generally lower because the troops are more spread out.
Before a foot patrol last week through a neighborhood next to Baghdad’s Sadr City district, a private with Alpha Company of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, began complaining about having to walk. But EFPs have claimed the lives of several soldiers in the unit, and Sgt. Leland Kidd, 28, of Gonzales, Texas, said the private should be thankful they were on foot.
“When I walk on my feet, I don’t have to worry about being blown up,” Kidd told the private. “In the vehicle, I have to.”
Top commanders have been encouraging more such units in Baghdad to take just that tack.
A counterinsurgency guidance memo released last week by Army Lt. Gen Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day military operations, urges Iraqi and American troops to “get out and walk.”
The memo argues that although Humvees offer protection, they also make units predictable and “insulate us from the Iraqi people we intend to secure.”
The original draft of the memo, written by counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, goes further. It notes that EFP attacks on Humvees damage them heavily. “So we gain little in safety, but sacrifice much in effectiveness,” the draft reads.
One reason for the increased number of troops victimized by roadside bombs is that there are more forces in Iraq now, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference Thursday. This month, the final additional American combat units arrived in Baghdad, as part of a counterinsurgency strategy announced by President Bush in January that has increased the U.S. military presence in Iraq by 28,500 troops.
“As we’re taking the fight to the enemy with the additional troops, we can expect that there’s going to be tough fighting ahead,” Pace said. “So it is an expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact and therefore more casualties.”
But another reason for the rising death toll is the ability of Iraq’s militants to adapt to new U.S. military tactics.
During the 2003 invasion, most American Humvees were outfitted with flimsy canvas doors. When the first improvised explosive devices made from artillery shells appeared, the military scrambled to put stronger armor on the vehicles. Since then, the military has repeatedly upgraded Humvee armor as militants have made bigger and bigger bombs.
But the small and easily hidden EFPs, which often are powered by C-4 plastic explosives, are not just a more powerful IED. Military personnel experienced with the projectiles say that what makes the weapons so deadly is that they use the Americans’ own armor against them. As the hot copper slug melts through the armor of a Humvee, it transforms the protective plating into shrapnel that sprays into the passenger cabin, they say.
“We joked about going back to canvas doors. That way, unless it hits you directly, you are OK,” said Army Sgt. William Bowman, 31, of Fort Myers, Fla.
But to Moskwa, the staff sergeant from Hawaii, the question of armor is no joke. Moskwa, who served as an Army recruiter in Pasadena before deploying to Iraq, thinks armor on vehicles and body armor on troops are too restrictive, hampering a service member’s ability to move quickly and agilely.
“I would rather go out without any armor or gear,” he said. “If an EFP hits the vehicle, you are dead anyway no matter how much armor you have. It can take out an Abrams tank; these 1114 [armored Humvees] are nothing.”
Army Staff Sgt. Shane Beckham, 26, of St. James City, Fla., a member of 1-8 Cavalry’s Bravo Company, likes dismounted patrols but says going without any armor doesn’t make sense.
“You still have snipers out here,” he said.
Beckham said that although he had seen EFPs destroy a Bradley fighting vehicle, the vehicle nevertheless protected the soldiers inside.
“When those hunks of steel burned to the ground, they did what they were designed to do: They saved my guys,” Beckham said.
The EFPs are most commonly used in poor Shiite Muslim districts, where they are the preferred weapon of militias aligned with radical cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia. But the devices are also found throughout Iraq, and the military has accused Shiite-run Iran of supplying EFPs to Sunni Arab insurgents as well as Shiites.
The bombs have been found, for example, in Diyala province, where the military Thursday continued its offensive against Sunni insurgents who had taken over neighborhoods in Baqubah, the provincial capital. As part of the operation, military officials said, the U.S. had killed 41 militants and destroyed 25 roadside bombs and five homes rigged with explosives. Although the military is trying to break the power of Sunni insurgents in the province, the offensive is also part of a larger strategy to control the area around Baghdad and prevent the flow of EFPs and suicide bombers into the Iraqi capital.
Although U.S. officials have said EFPs were originally smuggled in from Iran, militants in Iraq have now learned how to make them. And the newer ones are even more powerful, troops said.
On Thursday, a roadside bomb in northeast Baghdad killed five U.S. soldiers. An Iraqi interpreter and three Iraqi civilians also were killed in the blast.
The IED destroyed the Humvee the soldiers were riding in, an Iraqi Information Ministry official said.
The military also announced that four soldiers were killed Wednesday in a roadside bombing attack in west Baghdad. And on Tuesday, two soldiers were killed and four wounded southwest of Baghdad in another roadside bombing, the military said Thursday, correcting an earlier report that said the attack had occurred Wednesday. The military previously announced another death Tuesday, that of Army Spc. Darryl W. Linder, 23, of Hickory, N.C., who was killed in a bombing in Baqubah.
The military also reported Thursday that two Marines were killed Wednesday west of Baghdad in Al Anbar province. In addition, the military announced the death of a soldier Thursday in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack in north Baghdad.
In violence against Iraqi civilians, 13 people were killed and 70 injured in a bombing in the northern town of Sulaiman Bek. Around Baghdad, 20 bodies were found, many probably victims of Shiite death squads. In Wasit province, southeast of the capital, an explosive device detonated near an Iraqi police vehicle, killing three officers.
U.S. troops say that, for now at least, most EFPs are placed a safe distance from where Iraqis live, on main roads and streets without many homes on them. In the Shiite neighborhoods of east Baghdad, when militants set off roadside bombs that kill residents, American troops commonly pass out leaflets blaming Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia.
Those who have survived EFP attacks say the pressure from the blasts made their eyes bulge out of their heads, leaving them with headaches that lasted for days. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph De Wolf, 28, of Waco, Texas, suffered a concussion in an EFP strike.
“The projectile came under my seat, hit the battery box and missed me,” De Wolf said. “I got lucky.”
Army Sgt. Chris Wilson, 24, of Boston said that, relatively speaking, troops had grown accustomed to the threat of old-style improvised bombs and of snipers.
“EFPs are what we worry about every day,” Wilson said. “That is what keeps us up at night.”
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Paris, Peter Spiegel in Washington, Alexandra Zavis in Baqubah and Saif Hameed in Baghdad contributed to this report.