Car bomb becomes insurgent `weapon of choice' in Iraq; detection is difficult

Wednesday, October 13th 2004, 1:56 pm
By: News On 6

BAQOUBA, Iraq (AP) Hunting for the deadliest weapons in the insurgents' arsenal along one of the most dangerous highways in Iraq, a U.S. Army patrol rolls past the charred remnants of a suicide bomber's car. Moments later, the troops snake by a roadside pitted by an explosives-packed donkey cart that was blown up trying to hit an American convoy.

The soldiers inside the Humvees scan for telltale signs of their now longtime foe, the roadside bomb, and of a newer, often more lethal and far more difficult to detect weapon the car bomb.

``You consider every car a potential bomb,'' says Staff Sgt. Darrell Theurer, a veteran of some 400 missions. ``We've had everything from a piece of junk to a Mercedes to that donkey cart, with the donkey still attached.''

Countrywide, and especially in Baghdad, the U.S. military says the VBIED, for ``vehicle-borne improvised explosive device,'' has become the insurgents' weapon of choice, mostly wielded against Iraqi security personnel and American troops but often soaking the blast area with the blood of bystanders.

The U.S. command says 59 car bombs were detonated or discovered before going off last month, the highest total since the war began. The bombs killed 29 Iraqi and multinational soldiers, along with dozens of civilians.

That record may soon be broken, given the pace of attacks and detections reported by the military _ 30 in the first nine days of October _ in Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah, Baqouba and elsewhere. In the latest attack, a car bomb killed two U.S. soldiers on Wednesday.

Little is known about the suicide bombers. Militant Iraqis, and foreigners drawn to the war, are fighting in small, uncoordinated bands without a supreme leader or even agreement on goals and tactics, which makes it hard for authorities to track.

And, unlike Palestinian militant groups, the insurgents only occasionally claim responsibility for bombings and almost never advertise the names of suicide bombers.

In one of those rare incidences, the Tawhid and Jihad terrorist group led by Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last May identified a suicide bomber who tried to kill an Iraqi deputy interior minister as Ahmed el-Shami Aby Abdel Rahman, a Syrian.

And last year, a Yemeni was arrested after his car bomb failed to explode at a Baghdad police station.

``Obviously they are looking for more lethality, to have more effect on our operations,'' Capt. Ronald J. Talarico, an engineer with the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, said of the car bombers. ``They've looked at the effects of IEDs (roadside bombs) and saw that their impact was low.''

Car bombs offer the insurgents a range of advantages.

Planting a remote-controlled or booby-trapped bomb along a roadside can take up to two weeks, whereas a car, minibus or truck jammed with explosives can be quickly sent out in response to changing intelligence on targets, Talarico says.

Car bombs are relatively easy to rig _ troops have seized CDs in Baghdad showing how it's done _ and can slip through checkpoints with explosives attached to the undersides of vehicles or hidden in piles of vegetables or construction materials.

And they reduce casualties for insurgent bands compared to other forms of attacks, such as ambushes with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, which generally trigger an overwhelming U.S. response.

Highlighted in the media, mass casualties inflicted by bombs raise the international profile of the insurgency and undermine popular support for a government many Iraqis feel cannot provide security.

After car bombs killed 35 children at the opening of a Baghdad sewage plant Sept. 30, many parents didn't blame those who set off the blasts, but rather U.S. troops for failing to protect the neighborhood and sparking general lawlessness by the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Unleashed in the Islamic world over the past few decades after earlier use in Vietnam, Spain, Northern Ireland and elsewhere, vehicle bombs were inevitable in Iraq.

The first car bombs in Iraq, in August last year, struck the U.N. headquarters and Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. By the end of 2003, at least 354 people had been killed by such attacks, says the Brookings Institution, which keeps track of car bombings that kill more than two people.

The attacks have escalated this year, with 1,077 killed through Oct. 9. The Washington-based research organization says that of 136 bombings so far this year, 87 were carried out by suicide attackers, who are not included in its casualty count.

The U.S. military says it is mounting a major effort to stop car bombers and to ferret out roadside explosives.

Around Baqouba, 35 miles north of Baghdad, the 141st Engineer Combat Battalion conducts at least two bomb-seeking patrols a day, seven days a week, in what is one of the most perilous jobs in Iraq. Theurer, a sergeant in the South Dakota National Guard unit, says two of the six men in his squad have been wounded by explosives.

``It's a lot easier to find IEDs than car bombs. Most of the car bombs find us,'' the Bismarck, N.D., native says as the patrol scouts a 6-mile stretch of highway that soldiers have dubbed ``IED Alley.''

A half dozen car bombs and some 35 roadside bombs have been detonated along that strip the last six months. A sign at both ends warns that any car left standing by the road for more than one hour may be destroyed by the U.S. military.

There is little technological wizardry available to detect car bombs, says Theurer, who has a small crucifix dangling above the dashboard of his Humvee.

Some checkpoints have X-ray machines to scan vehicles and a video-equipped robot can be called up to peer into a suspicious car. But out on the road, the best defense against VBIEDs is largely experience, eyesight and instinct, he said.

The patrols are on the lookout for certain aging car models, vehicles with low riding back ends, cars that try to get close to vehicles as they pass a military convoy or just a driver's darting, shifty look.

``Often it's one soldier's decision _ a 19-year-old sitting behind a .50-caliber machine gun in a Humvee in 110-degree weather making a decision in five seconds,'' said Talarico, the engineer captain.

In one incident, he recalled, a remotely detonated car bomb went off at a traffic circle near Baqouba two months ago. As U.S. troops moved in to cordon the area, a young soldier spotted a nervous-looking driver trying to get a stalled, decrepit car moving. Within moments the soldier fired, turning the car and suicide bomber into a cauldron of flames and flying metal.

``The insurgents are always looking for new avenues of attack,'' Talarico says, then adds an ominous note: ``What we have to find out is what comes after the VBIEDs.''