The number of American troops killed by homemade bombs in Iraq has nearly doubled this spring, since the "surge" of forces began, a stark reminder of the dangers there and a trend that intensifies pressure on the Pentagon agency charged with defeating the bombs.
As of Tuesday, the Defense Department confirms that 377 service members have been killed under hostile circumstances since Jan. 1 – with 265 of those deaths, or 70 percent, attributed to improvised explosive devices. That rate represents the average normally attributed to deaths from the bombs, called IEDs.
But the trend line is not good. In each of the past two months, the share of deaths attributed to IEDs has jumped to 83 percent, according to Pentagon data.
The simple explosives are hidden in cars, planted in the ground, or strapped to suicide bombers. But over the past month insurgents have begun placing them in trucks to achieve greater impact, Defense officials say.
The actual number of service members – including soldiers, marines, and other troops – killed by IEDs rose from 39 in January to 78 in April. As of last Saturday, 48 more American service members have been killed by IEDs since the beginning of May, including seven who died Saturday (six of them in one attack in Baghdad).
The result is more scrutiny for the Pentagon organization that some believe should lead the effort to minimize the use of the improvised explosive device, eliminate the No. 1 killer of US troops, and thereby fundamentally change the nature of the war for US forces in Iraq.
That is an enormous order for the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), created as a task force to defeat IEDs in 2004 and formalized as an agency last year. It has spent more than $6 billion so far but has been criticized by some in Congress for not spending enough – or showing that it is getting results.
The soft-spoken head of the agency, Montgomery Meigs, a retired Army four-star general, acknowledges that his organization could do better at getting the word out. But it is spending its money, and it's having an effect, he says.
"We are making steady progress and playing our role in helping units deal with this problem," he says.
Some of the data that would show the agency's successes is classified, Mr. Meigs says. That leaves him able to provide little publicly that would illustrate just what the organization has achieved in the past few years. Still, his main argument for JIEDDO's effectiveness is that the number of IED incidents causing troop casualties has generally remained steady since January 2004, while the number of IED attacks has increased dramatically.
"The amount of casualties has remained about the same. It's got peaks and valleys, but it's stayed about the same. But the number of IEDs has steadily gone up," he says during an interview in his office not far from the Pentagon. "And the proportion of the IEDs that we find – and that are ineffective or blow up and nobody's hurt – has gotten larger, so this is the important chart."
Additionally, it is taking the enemy six times the number of attacks to kill just one coalition force member, Meigs says.
As for congressional criticism that the JIEDDO hasn't spent enough of its budget – $4.4 billion in fiscal 2007 if Congress honors its full request this year – Meigs says the organization has spent the money.
In fact, he says, the agency has committed almost all its current funding, which means it has paid other agencies for equipment and services – and those agencies have in turn spent about 70 percent of those funds in a short time.
That's not good enough for Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, an appropriator who remains concerned that the JIEDDO isn't having enough effect. Insurgents have made more progress than has the IED-fighting organization, he says. "You still have an increase in casualties at the end of the day," he says. "That's the most disturbing fact."
The JIEDDO has redirected much of its budget to focus on defeating terrorist networks that plant IEDs. In part that's because the agency has already bought much of the jamming, radio, and other equipment used to defeat IEDs. It's also a sign that attacking the source of the trouble may a more effective approach to the problem. It also helped to spearhead an effort to build trucks that can withstand such explosions. So-called Mine Resistant Ambush Protection vehicles have become the focal point of force-protection initiatives in the Pentagon now.
The efforts leave many officials to ponder the possibilities of altering the course of the war. "The country needs to focus on one thing and that is defeating IEDs," says a Defense official. "If we could figure that out, we could change the face of the war."