BAGHDAD, Iraq – Bombs like the roadside blast that killed 14 Marines last week are becoming the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Iraq, surpassing bullets, rockets and mortars, as insurgents wage an unconventional war that has boosted the American death toll beyond 1,820.
That toll continued to mount Saturday when a roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said today.
This isn’t a conflict like the World Wars or Vietnam, where waves of enemy ground troops backed by artillery attacked American firebases. Gone too are the intense street battles waged last year in cities like Najaf, Karbala and Fallujah, or in Nasiriyah during the 2003 invasion.
Americans still die in mortar strikes and gunfights, like the six Marine snipers killed Aug. 1 in a rebel ambush. But surprise blasts – when the road erupts without warning or an explosives-packed car disintegrates into a fireball – have become the hallmarks of the Iraq war.
Since the end of May, more than 65 percent of U.S. military deaths in Iraq have resulted from insurgent bombings, compared to nearly 23 percent in conventional combat and 12 percent in accidents, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.
In recent weeks, rebel bombs have been responsible for 70 percent to 80 percent of American soldiers killed or wounded, command spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Boylan said this week.
Of the 54 American troops who died in Iraq in July, 42 were killed either by roadside bombs, car bombs or in one case a land mine. So far this month, 29 soldiers and Marines have died – all but nine from bombs.
Those figures document an evolution in rebel tactics. Looking back to the U.S. invasion in March 2003, about 32 percent of American military deaths have been from improvised explosions, suicide bombs or other such blasts – compared to about 48 percent in firefights and other combat. Slightly more than 19 percent died in accidents.
The insurgent bomb strategy is frustrating for American troops, who watch comrades die and are unable to retaliate as they’ve been trained: with return fire.
Instead, the bombs are either piloted to their target by a suicide driver or detonated remotely by an attacker who can disappear into a crowd of civilians.
“That’s the insurgent strategy, this pervasive insecurity. You can’t fight against an unseen enemy,” said RAND Corp. counterinsurgency expert Bruce Hoffman.
Iraq has turned into a struggle that pits Americans’ conventional arms against gritty rebel innovation.
As U.S. troops have added armor, the insurgent bombs – which the U.S. military refers to as Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs – have gotten bigger.
Guerrillas have learned, in more than two years of fighting, how to conceal their bombs and make them far more deadly.
In the early days of the occupation, American soldiers would find crude bombs hidden in trash bins, buried along roads, and hidden in drink cans and even roadkill carcasses.
The U.S. military picked up on these techniques and began cleaning roadsides, chopping down trees and clearing brush. Insurgents responded by burying bombs under gravel or asphalt.
One new bomb design uses a steel plate underneath to direct the blast up into a passing vehicle. Another fires a solid steel penetrator that can pierce the armor on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, officers and analysts say.
In January, IEDs destroyed a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and an Abrams tank – two of the most heavily armored vehicles in the U.S. arsenal.
In some cases, the detonations have been so huge that American vehicles are ripped apart as thoroughly as a suicide bomber’s car. On Wednesday, a blast from a bomb hidden by rebels who tunneled under a road outside Haditha engulfed a 25-ton troop carrier, throwing it 30 feet and killing 14 Marines and their civilian translator.
That bomb was invisible to passing troops. Some who’d heard about the investigation said there were no marks on the road to offer clues.
The bomb was probably triggered by a hidden observer, who detonated it under the second-to-last vehicle in the convoy – a packed troop carrier.
“I’ve lost eight buddies in a week,” Army Spc. William “Shane” Parham, a sheriff’s deputy from Walton County, Ga., serving in a Baghdad-based unit, told an embedded reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Nobody trained us to get blown up like this.”
Although the number of vehicle and roadside bombings is decreasing, U.S. commanders warn they are increasing in explosive power and sophistication – enough for the Pentagon to establish an IED Task Force.
The number of combat deaths blamed on IEDs jumped from about 26 percent in 2004 to 51 percent as of early June 2005, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“You’re watching the insurgents develop more sophisticated methods of attack, and more sophisticated IEDs,” said Anthony Cordesman of the center. “They’re using shaped charges and anti-tank mines stacked together. They’re using 500-pound bombs that can destroy any armored vehicle. They’re using these so-called swarming attacks, firing several RPG rounds at one lightly armored vehicle.”
The Iraq war has brought a curious reversal of roles. The insurgents have adopted advanced American warfare concepts of attacking from beyond visual range and using remote control to keep fighters out of harm’s way, RAND Corp.’s Hoffman said.
At the same time, the insurgents blend so well into the population that American technology is ineffective, leaving U.S. troops to fight the old way, with boots on the ground.
“We’re seeing the automated battlefield, but we’re not the ones who are in technological control. The enemy is. They’re killing us with remote-detonated IEDs,” Hoffman said. “It’s like they’re fighting a war by technological proxy. But that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The numbers of Americans killed so far in Iraq remains low, compared with the tens of thousands who died in Vietnam or Korea. But if Iraq is considered a nation-building or stability operation, the death toll is very high measured against the U.S. experience in the Dominican Republic, Panama and the Balkans, said James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan and now a military analyst for RAND Corp.
The number of U.S. dead is essentially under the control of U.S. commanders: Send out more patrols and more troops will get killed.
“We are largely setting the pace of battle with our patrols and raids,” said the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon.