Iraqis learning how to turn bombs into duds

BESMAYA RANGE COMPLEX, Iraq — Two Iraqi soldiers acting as insurgents hook up a cellular phone detonator to a 155mm artillery shell with a coiled red wire, bury the mock bomb in a pile of dirt next to a rusty electricity pole and then disappear down the street.

Minutes later, an Iraqi army patrol in Humvees and an armored vehicle with radio-jamming equipment speed into the dusty intersection and disable the bomb remotely with a robot, as U.S. and Iraqi generals observe the training drill from the shade of a tent.

The exercise at this sandy, wind-swept Iraqi military base south of Baghdad is part of U.S. efforts to pass on hard-learned lessons to Iraq’s army on how to combat what has long been the insurgent weapon of choice — roadside bombs.

The need for Iraqi units that can clear streets of explosives is pressing. Last Thursday, Iraq’s parliament approved a security agreement that would pull American troops out of Iraqi towns and cities by July 2009 ahead of a withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.

“The goal is to provide the capabilities to the Iraqi army and Iraq to be able to get firsthand into the counter-IED fight,” Capt. Miguel Torres said, using the military acronym for Improvised Explosive Device, or roadside bomb.

“IEDs are one of the primary killers in the country for coalition forces and Iraqi army forces and civilians. We want to take that tool from the insurgents,” he said.

Torres works for the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, or MNSTC-I, which is responsible for training the Iraqi military. He serves as the chief U.S. adviser for bomb disposal training at Besmaya, a sprawling Iraqi base and firing range on an arid plain 13 miles southeast of Baghdad.

When U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, the military did not foresee roadside bombs as a primary threat to American forces. But as violence escalated, insurgents who could not win a head-on fight with U.S. troops increasingly resorted to roadside bombs, which became a top killer of American soldiers.

The U.S. developed an array of techniques and expensive equipment to counter the threat, including adding armor on Humvees and dispatching new “MRAP” troop carriers with V-shaped undercarriages to deflect the blast of roadside bombs.

The security situation has improved dramatically in Iraq since last year. A Web site that tracks military casualties in Iraq,, says American deaths from roadside bombs plummeted from 432 in 2006 to 130 so far this year.

The brunt of roadside bomb attacks fall now on Iraqi security forces and civilians.

“Insurgents can’t fight the Iraqi army face-to-face, so they use IEDs to hit the people,” Col. Abbas Fadhil, an Iraqi commander at the base, said during a lunch of rice, grilled fish and mutton.

The lessons the U.S. has picked up — along with some key pieces of high-tech equipment — are being passed on to the Iraqis.

The training at Besmaya includes a 12-week bomb disposal course that teaches soldiers the basics of identifying explosives and detonating them. The students can then enroll in a seven-week advanced roadside bomb disposal course that provides soldiers with the tools and skills to defuse IEDs.

The Iraqi military runs the courses, while U.S. personnel act as advisers.

Key pieces of technology include the Badger light armored vehicle, an eight-person vehicle with a long arm topped with two spikes used to unearth hidden roadside bombs; the Mini Andros II robot to defuse bombs, and Symphony electronic frequency-jamming technology to block signals that remotely trigger the explosives.

Some 1,200 Iraqis have completed the basic course, and 220 of those have graduated from the advanced roadside bomb class.

U.S. officials said they hope to have an engineer battalion for every Iraqi army division to clear roadside bombs by the end of next year.

Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, a deputy commanding general of MNSTC-I’s advisory team, said the Iraqis had made strides.

“I could put Iraqis in American gear and have them go through a drill like today’s, and you’d think they were American soldiers,” he said. “They’re that good.”

Meanwhile, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric has expressed concern about the country’s security pact with the United States, fearing it gives too much power to the Americans and does not protect Iraqi sovereignty, an official at his office said Saturday.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments fell short of outright rejection but will put pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government to sell the deal to the public before Iraqi voters render a final decision in a referendum to be held by July 30.

Al-Sistani, who wields tremendous influence among Iraq’s majority Shiites, had indicated that he would not object to the pact if it were passed by a comfortable majority in parliament.

Parliament approved the agreement Thursday in a session attended by just under 200 of the legislature’s 275 lawmakers. Of those in attendance, about 150 voted for the pact, which would allow American forces to remain in Iraq for three more years.

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