WASHINGTON – Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.
While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.
U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant.
Those reports show that fewer than half the bomb attacks on heavily armored U.S. vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were in areas where Shiite militias dominate.
While it’s difficult to know which armed group planted a bomb, analysts say the casualty numbers show that U.S. officials are exaggerating the importance of EFPs, which military officials say have been used only by Shiites.
“There were relatively few American deaths from explosively formed penetrators until recently, but you can say the same thing about attacks on helicopters or chlorine attacks,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a policy research group in Arlington, Va. “The fact of the matter is that the insurgents, both Sunni and Shiite, are becoming a lot more sophisticated in their tactics. Explosively formed penetrators are only one part of that, and they are not a particularly important part.”
Pentagon officials say the issue is important because the Iranian government appears to be involved.
“I think the issue is not whether or not materials and supplies are coming from Iran – they are – but rather how far up the Iranian leadership is involved,” said Bryan Whitman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman.
U.S. military officials accuse Iran of supplying Shiite militants with EFPs, which fire a molten slug of metal that can punch through the thickest American armor, including tanks and other vehicles designed to withstand heavy blasts. The officials say the bombs have killed at least 170 U.S. and allied service members and wounded more than 620 since they were first discovered on the battlefield in mid-2004.
Those officials have declined to provide other information about the bombs’ use, including when and where the explosions that killed Americans took place. They say that such information would tip off the enemy to its successes.
Roadside bombs have killed at least 1,150 Americans since the war began, according to Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, 496 died from Dec. 1, 2005, through Jan. 31 of this year.
U.S. military officials point to the discovery of a weapons cache in a Shiite village near Baqouba, about 40 miles from Baghdad, as the latest evidence that Iran is supplying Shiite militants with weapons.
On Monday, the Defense Department posted a video of the discovery on the Web, and American officers in Baghdad displayed weapons seized in the raid, including rocket-propelled grenades, 120 mm mortars and 122 mm rockets that they said bore markings that proved the weapons were made in Iran last year.
The find also included artillery rounds, land mines, detonation cord, triggering devices, C-4 explosives and more than 140 metal discs, which the U.S. military said were components for making EFPs.
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said this week that the weapons clearly were linked to Iran.
“The mortar tubes were made in Iran,” he said. “We know that the pieces of the explosively formed projectiles, the machine pieces, were made in Iran. So we know they’re being developed and brought into Iraq.”
Odierno said on CNN this week that he was convinced that the EFP materials were coming from Iran.
“We have tried to see people replicate them here in Iraq, and they have not been able to do it,” he said. “The machining required, the materials that are required, we think absolutely are coming from Iran, and you saw the big cache we found just the other day – almost 140 of these could be produced from that cache that we found.”
Odierno said Iran’s al Quds commando force was involved either in training or supplying Shiite groups, but the full extent of the Iranian government’s involvement remains unclear.
Analysts say the evidence is far from clear that Iran could be the only source for the bomb components.
“Explosively formed penetrators are not some exclusive franchise for the Iranians,” Thompson said. “They are fairly common around the world.”
Explosively formed penetrators are also known as shaped charges. The warheads were developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles are conventional examples. Shaped charges also are used in the oil and gas industry.
John Pike, the executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military, intelligence and homeland-security information, said that while designing a shaped charge would require expertise, fabricating the devices was simpler, requiring only skill in using metal-machining tools.
“These are not factory-produced munitions,” he said.
Asked who’d have the expertise to manufacture a shaped charge, Pike cited “people who had worked with explosives in the petroleum industry.” In Iraq, he said, “there would be a fair number of those.”
Roadside bombs have been the No. 1 killer of U.S. service members in Iraq for years, though the numbers were dropping last year compared with the year before until October, when they shot up sharply, according to the Coalition Casualty Count Web site. December was the deadliest month of the war for roadside bombs, with 67 American deaths, nearly half of which were in Baghdad.
Overall, however, the number of U.S. deaths from IEDs in 2006 was up less than 6 percent from the year before, according to Coalition Casualty Count.
The spike in the last quarter of the year corresponded with an increased use of explosively formed projectiles during the same period, according to American defense officials. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said on the Senate floor recently that 90 percent of the EFPs detonated in Iraq had been used in Baghdad.
U.S. military officials say EFPs are more dangerous than other types of roadside bombs because they typically produce more casualties.
American casualty reports show that the deadliest roadside-bomb attacks of the war have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas or areas with mixed ethnic and religious populations.
Of the 81 roadside bomb attacks that killed two or more soldiers from December 2005 through January 2007, one-quarter occurred in western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, and nearly two-thirds took place in Baghdad and other ethnically and religiously mixed areas, the reports show. Fewer than 10 percent were in predominantly Shiite areas.