US casualties from bomb attacks in Iraq have reached new heights in the last two months as insurgents have begun to deploy devices that leave armored vehicles increasingly vulnerable, according to military records.
Last month there were about 700 attacks against American forces using so-called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the highest number since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the US military command in Iraq and a senior Pentagon military official. Attacks on Iraqis also reached unprecedented levels, Lieutenant General John Vines, a senior US ground commander in Iraq, told reporters on June 21.
The surge in attacks, the officials say, has coincided with the appearance of significant advancements in bomb design, including the use of "shaped" charges that concentrate the blast and give it a better chance of penetrating armored vehicles, causing higher casualties.
Another change, a senior military officer said, has been the detonation of explosives by infrared lasers, an innovation aimed at bypassing electronic jammers used to block bombs from detonating.
IEDs of all types caused 33 American deaths last month, and there have been at least 38 fatalities so far this month, the highest toll over a two-month period, according to statistics assembled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks official figures.
In a sign of heightened US concern, the Army convened a conference last week at Fort Irwin, in the California desert, where engineers, contractors and senior officers grappled with the problems posed by the new bombs. One attendee, Colonel Bob Davis, an Army explosives expert, called the new elements seen in some bombs "pretty disturbing."
In a brief interview, Davis declined to discuss the changes, but said the "sophistication is increasing and it will increase further." In addition, on June 21, senior Army officials gave a closed briefing to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the insurgents' new techniques, according to two congressional aides.
Although the number of bombs using the refinements remains low, their appearance underscores the insurgents' adaptability and the difficulty the Pentagon faces, despite a strong effort over the last year, in containing the threat. Improvised explosives now account for about 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq.
At a briefing on Tuesday for reporters at the Pentagon, Vines, who spoke by telephone from Iraq, said that the insurgents' tactics "have become more sophisticated in some cases," and that they were probably drawing on bomb-making experts from outside Iraq and from the old Iraqi Army. He added that the insurgency was "quite small" and "relatively static," a view not shared by all of his colleagues.
Car bomb attacks against American forces -- both suicide attacks and remotely detonated devices -- reached a monthly high of 70 in April and fell slightly in May, according to figures provided by the US military in Iraq.
"For a period of time we felt we were pushing them away from us, and now it looks like they are back to targeting coalition forces," said a Pentagon official involved in the anti-IED effort. "And they've learned that in order to attack us, they need to get more sophisticated."
The next highest two-month period was in January and February, around the time of the Iraqi elections, when 54 Americans were killed by bombs, according to the official statistics assembled by the casualty-count Web site. Iraqis suffer the most casualties by far, though reliable figures are not available.
The insurgents "certainly appear to be surging right now," Brigadier General Joseph Votel, who leads the anti-IED task force, said in an interview at Fort Irwin. "Time will tell about their ability to sustain this."
US officials also worry that the increase in attacks threatens to further disrupt Iraq's fledgling government and could threaten the Bush administration's strategy for maintaining public support for the US presence in Iraq by holding down American casualties. Previous increases in attacks have coincided with major political events, but the motivation behind this surge is less obvious, military officials say.
"We're in a very, very dangerous period," said a senior military official at the Pentagon. "To be a successful insurgent you need to be able to create spectacular attacks, and they've certainly done that in the past several weeks."
In addition to technical improvements in their bombs, insurgents, especially in rural areas, are resorting to packing more explosives into the devices to disable armored vehicles, Army experts at the Fort Irwin conference said.
Hundreds of armored Humvees have been rushed to Iraq over the past year, and Pentagon officials say unarmored vehicles are now confined to bases. Still, five Marines were killed this week near Ramadi, about 125km west of Baghdad, when their vehicle hit an IED. Earlier this month, five Marines were killed after their vehicle struck a bomb in Haqlaniya, about 270km northwest of Baghdad.
A senior Marine officer with access to classified reports from the field said the military had had "a very bad couple of weeks, in Ramadi especially." The vehicles involved in the two fatal attacks on the Marines were armored Humvees but, the officer said, the bombs "were so big that there was little left of the Humvees that were hit."
Insurgents have long been able to build bombs powerful enough to penetrate some armored vehicles. But use of "shaped" charges could raise the threat considerably, military officials said. Since last month, at least three such bombs have been found, Lieutenant General James Conway, the director of operations for the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing this month.
The shaped charge explosion fires a projectile "at a very rapid rate, sufficient to penetrate certain levels of armor," Conway said, adding that armored Humvees are "susceptible if they're hit just right, with the shape charge at just the right angle." He added that the weapons employing shaped charges have caused US casualties in the last two months, but he did not give details.
A Pentagon official involved in combating the devices said shaped charges seen so far appeared crude but required considerable expertise, suggesting insurgents were able to draw on well-trained bombmakers, possibly even rocket scientists, from the former government. Shaped charges and rocket engines are similar, the official said.
Infrared detonators are an advance over the more common method of rigging bombs to explode after an insurgent nearby presses a button on a cellphone, a garage door opener or other device that gives off an electric signal. That approach is vulnerable to jammers, however, and a shift to infrared detonators, which rely on light waves, underscores the insurgents' resourcefulness.
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