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Relentless toll to US troops of roadside bombs

The IED has caused over a third of the 3,000 American GI deaths in Iraq.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2007



Almost every day, Sgt. First Class Joel Jacobs comes to the Third Infantry Division's "Warriors' Walk" at Fort Stewart, Ga. Among the eastern redbud trees – each commemorating one of the more than 300 division soldiers killed in Iraq – it's a chance for him to honor his fallen comrades.

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Over New Year's, with the number of US service men and women who've died in Iraq at the 3,000 mark, the rest of the nation had occasion to pause and reflect on the war's toll.

Like many, Sergeant Jacobs greets the news of American casualties with sorrow and resolve. He retired from the Army a few months ago, and you might think the prosthetic leg would slow him down. But asked how he's doing, this 21-year veteran who faced danger in Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq says , "I'm absolutely fine, sir."

"When you come home, you remember the ultimate sacrifices some of your fellow soldiers have made," he says of his regular walk.

Of the 3,000 American GIs lost in Iraq as of midday Sunday, more have been killed by roadside bombs – improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – than any other cause. More than by rifle fire, mortar attack, or car bomb.

It's a danger that has bedeviled Pentagon war planners for months, one to which they've responded with a high-level task force headed by a retired four-star general, $6.7 billion in research and development, new high-tech equipment and vehicles, and – perhaps most important – intelligence efforts to get inside the decisionmaking of an insurgency that is sophisticated, if largely low-tech.

If anything, the danger is increasing despite efforts to counter it.

IEDs are "the enemy's most effective weapon," Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all US forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services committee last March. "They are the perfect asymmetric weapon – cheap, effective, and anonymous."

Improvised bomb attacks on US troops now top 1,000 a month, four times the rate in 2004. Insurgents have become more sophisticated in their bombmaking, placement, and means of detonation. The British military has determined that there are enough stocks of illegal explosives to continue the same level of attack for years without resupply, reports DefenseNews.com.

Since the beginning of the war in March 2003, IEDs have accounted for about 45 percent of all US fatalities from hostile causes. And that percentage is increasing. Of 100 recent hostile fatalities, IEDs caused 67. December saw the highest number of Americans killed overall in Iraq in two years.

"Buried explosives are easy to plant and hard to find," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. "They can be built and detonated using a range of readily available items, making them an attractive tool."

The IED problem extends beyond Iraq. IED attacks in Afghanistan doubled from 2005 to 2006. They are, as Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody called them, "the poor man's cruise missile."

IEDs are not a new phenomenon in war. Sergeant Jacobs encountered one in Somalia in 1993. But the scale of their use in Iraq is unique.

"Perversely, the IED problem is a result of the difficulty the enemy has in attacking American troops by other means," says John Pike, head of the a military news and policy website GlobalSecurity.org.

The US military is in the midst of a big push to counter and defend against the roadside bombs, spending more than $3 billion this year on the effort. This includes new ways to jam remote-control devices used to detonate IEDs and robots to disarm or blow them up without hurting anybody. But radio frequency jamming is difficult, because it can interfere with coalition communications systems such as those used to operate aerial drones. And soldiers have to find roadside bombs before they can disable or destroy them.

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