TCS Daily

Car Bombs: It Only Gets Worse

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 18, 2004 12:00 AM

You're a Marine at a checkpoint somewhere in Iraq, watching cars and trucks streaming by -- Iraqis on their way to work or shopping or the mosque. How do you figure out which vehicle may be another deadly bomb? And what do you do when you spot a "suspicious" car?

These unanswerable questions put the life-threatening challenges facing our troops in Iraq into grim perspective. Since the war in Iraq began we at TCS have discussed the insidious nature of car bombs and their effect on human beings here and here.

We have emphasized that car bombings are not random terrorist acts, but simply the employment of the most efficient weapon the Islamic terrorist forces have at this stage of the war. They use vehicle bombs both to "fight" U.S. and coalition troops and to kill and demoralize Iraqi civilians.

The car bomb is by nature a dramatic weapon, combining practical and psychological qualities. It transforms a ubiquitous and useful piece of everyday technology into an object of intense anxiety, outright fear and, finally devastating lethality.

While the suicidal car bombings instituted by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations against Israel have usually been deadly acts of theater in which the perpetrators are identified and celebrated as martyrs, the vehicle attacks in Iraq are usually the work of unknowns, thus putting a peculiar twist on the term "cannon fodder."

The drivers of these rolling bombs have all the anonymity of an artillery shell. They are mere delivery systems, needed in greater numbers as the pace of car bombings has picked up. There were 59 vehicle bomb incidents in September in Iraq (detonated on target, detonated while attempting to reach targets, or discovered before they could be detonated), and every indication is that that number will be surpassed in October.

Since Iraq is a vast munitions dump the bomb builders do not lack for explosives. The bombs employed thus far have varied widely in sophistication. Some are merely braces of artillery shells stuffed into the trunk or under the back seat of a car. Some are skillfully-built arrays of explosives, carefully positioned in vehicle frames and body panels for maximum lethal effect.

They include treacherously thoughtful touches like nails and ball bearings to increase killing and maiming beyond the immediate blast radius. There is even some evidence of "shaping" to direct the force of the bomb blast.

One may speculate endlessly on the religious frenzy, pathetic ignorance or misguided "heroism" of these mass murderers, but the fact is they are faceless soldiers doing someone's bidding. It follows that the only effective defense against this weapon (as we have pointed out before) is astute, aggressive intelligence work combined with constant military probes to find the sanctuaries where the bombs are made.

Unless and until such probes are successful the car bomb situation can only get worse. Meanwhile, it is difficult to remain high-minded while attempting to thwart car bombings. U.S. forces are constantly going somewhere in small convoys along public roads thick with traffic. And the observers and machine gunners atop Humvees or armored vehicles in these convoys know that a mixture of experience, quick reflexes and a sort of paranoid vigilance can only get them so far.

That van at the intersection up ahead seems to be sitting low on its suspension. Is it filled (as is common) with workers hitching a ride, or is that the weight of some heavy ordnance?

You train your gun on the vehicle, trying desperately to "read" the situation. If you play the odds wrong... In Mosul, earlier this week, a driver plowed into a convoy and blew up his car, killing two U.S. soldiers. This has happened with depressing frequency over the past year.

Such incidents put inestimable strains on convoy guards and those at checkpoints. Mistakes are made. Apparent innocents have been killed in a hail of fire because they sped up or drove erratically when they saw coalition troops. Media coverage focuses on "civilians killed" in the action and seldom provides any context concerning the nerve-wracking dynamics of the encounter.

So, largely hidden from view, the tedious, perilous and sometimes disheartening business of finding and killing the car bombers goes on. Air strikes flatten a suspected terrorist meeting place. Or was it a home filled with innocent civilians?

Patrols go out day after day and return empty-handed. Sometimes they stumble on something. Sometimes a tip pays off. Sometimes an incidental fire fight results in the killing of would-be bombers. Sometimes we never know a success has been achieved.

But the fight must go on. The bombers must be denied space (whether it's an ad hoc headquarters in a "quiet neighborhood" in Fallujah, or a garage bomb factory in Baghdad). They must be denied time to contemplate their next move. They must be kept off balance, steeped in suspicion of their surroundings, a little prone to look up and look back -- like one of those Hamas guys who thought he heard an Israeli helicopter.

Perhaps these blood-lusting Muslim radicals indeed do not fear death, as they like to boast. Fine. Then U.S. forces will have to forego whatever slim satisfaction or advantage that might be derived from their fear.

And this is not the time to let the leaven of democracy take hold and change the atmosphere either. That wouldn't work with these guys anyway. They are hate-filled stone killers. We just have to find them first. And kill them.


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