Roadside bombs remain top threat in Iraq

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

AL FAW PALACE, BAGHDAD — His voice is as flat and unemotional as one might hope to hear from someone trained to disarm and dispose of bombs.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Justin Hamaker, 31, is an explosive ordnance disposal team leader with EOD Mobile Unit 8, out of U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. He is among 20 sailors from the unit completing their fifth month of a six-month assignment in support of the Army’s 79th Ordnance Battalion.

Hamaker’s three-man team is on call 12 hours a day in and around Baghdad. Typically, the calls come from soldiers on foot patrol who find weapon caches or from convoys stopped near what they believe is a roadside bomb.

The military calls them IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and they remain the deadliest weapon of Iraqi insurgency. Last month IEDs killed 74 U.S. service members, the highest monthly toll since these makeshift bombs first began to appear along Iraqi roadways in July 2003, four months after the U.S. invasion.
Just since September 2006, when Hamaker arrived in Iraq, IEDs have killed almost 200 Americans, most of them soldiers and Marines. But among IED victims over the past year were nine sailors, four of them EOD technicians.

Hamaker’s 20-man unit hasn’t suffered casualties but they have had close calls, he said.

“Had IEDs go off on vehicles in our convoys,” he said. “Had RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) shot at us. Take small arms fire pretty regularly.”

Among sailors killed by IED before Hamaker arrived in Iraq last September was a friend he trained with in Navy dive school.

The greatest threat to EOD teams, to Army engineers and to airmen working on bomb disposal in Iraq is not handling unexploded bombs or weapon caches.

“The most dangerous part is just getting to wherever we’re going,” Hamaker said. That means, of course, that any U.S. service member traveling the roads of Iraq, including many of the 21,500 to arrive here under President Bush’s new surge order, are exposed to what most worries even EOD technicians.

EOD teams here, said Hamaker, support specific companies of soldiers. They also work to clear convoy routes. Hamaker’s unit has “a huge chunk of ground” to cover, from Taji 20 miles north of Baghdad down to Mahmudiya, south of the city.

Navy units received some extra pre-deployment training to integrate their skills in a ground combat environment focusing on unexploded ordnance, boobytraps and IEDs. But Hamaker describes Navy EOD training as the best.

When a weapons cache is located, an EOD team arrives with their vehicle, a hardened EOD platform, and special equipment including a robot. The robot, about the size of a child’s wagon, moves on miniature tank-like tracks. Its remotely operated camera inspects the weapons cache, suspect bomb, and surrounding area.

“If it’s just a piece of ordnance,” said Hamaker, “we will transport it to a safe area and dispose of it. If it can’t be safely transported, using a robot we will maneuver it somewhere where we can blow it up.”

Caches found so far have ranged from a few rocket-propelled grenades to a 2,000-piece stockpile of hand grenades through 155mm projectiles. About half of all caches found contain IEDs “in some state of production,” said Hamaker. IEDs typically employ 57mm antiaircraft shells or a 155mm projectile.

Asked if the IED threat in Iraq ever will be eliminated, Hamaker hesitated before answering. He noted that roadside bombs no longer are used by the IRA in Northern Ireland. “That’s really the only example,” he said. The threat went away when both sides “were able to meet in the middle” and settle their differences.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: