Iraq, the Unraveling: Here’s a nasty killer most Americans know nothing about

Iraq, the Unraveling: Here’s a nasty killer most Americans know nothing about

Tom R.: An American soldier was killed by a sniper near Kut, south of Baghdad. I can’t remember the last time we lost someone down there. Meanwhile, here is a report on something Americans haven’t paid much attention to:

By Capt. Michael Cummings, U.S. Army
Best Defense deputy IED correspondent

If Americans are still paying attention to Iraq — and far and away most of them aren’t — they know about the political deadlock that crippled the Iraqi government for seven months. Or they know about the gigantic explosions that semi-regularly rip through Baghdad.

But in my opinion, that violence isn’t the biggest threat to a democratic and stable Iraq. Over the last two years, violence in Iraq has transformed from attacks on American troops to attacks on political rivals. The weapon characterizing this change is the "sticky bomb," or Magnetically Attached IED (MAIED in Army-acronym-speak). Most Americans have never heard of these killers, and probably never will. Yet this weapon will affect the future of Iraq for years to come.

A sticky bomb is a simple concept: take a few pounds of homemade explosives, attach a heavy magnet, then attach a detonator. At night, an insurgent bikes or runs by the target vehicle, then with a quick movement places the bomb underneath it. Sticky bombs can be placed discreetly, easily and anonymously. Unlike traditional IEDs, the sticky bomb only hurts the person inside the vehicle. Whether by remote, timer, or movement sensor, when the target gets in the vehicle, the bomb explodes.

If the occupant is lucky, he dies; if he is unlucky, the bomb maims him, thrusting him into the virtually non-existent Iraqi health care system.

Though it has been in Iraq for years, the MAIED is becoming the tool of choice for political killings. (If you know your warfare, sticky bombs aren’t anything new. For years the Irish Republican Army used these devices to kill British soldiers, police and bureaucrats.) Insurgents use sticky bombs on everybody in the Iraqi government, from the traffic cops to the highest elected representatives. MAIEDs are easier and cheaper to assemble than a full blown IED, and deliver a more precise result, while avoiding collateral damage. Because they are easy to place, sticky bombs can go many places IEDs can’t, including Iraqi government parking lots.

The expanded use of sticky bombs makes sense for the Iraqi insurgency. When insurgents tried to blow up US soldiers, it required complex explosively-formed penetrators (EFP) or gigantic IEDs to break through the heavy armor. To target Iraqi vehicles, especially civilian cars, an insurgent only needs a few pounds of properly placed C4 and a magnet.

Sticky bombs have already killed over a hundred people this year. Probably twice that many sticky bombs have been disarmed or prematurely detonated. Assassinations keep the government services from functioning, keep the police from investigating crimes, and keep Sunni insurgents in control of swaths of Baghdad. The majority of attacks target Shia politicians, and are probably placed by Sunni criminals, insurgents and terrorists — a fact that continues to hamper Sunni and Shia reconciliation.

The Army needs to step up to the plate to stop this. While U.S. forces have a shrinking mission in Iraq, as long as troops are on the ground we need to help Iraqis. American forces still care primarily about stopping indirect fire attacks against their own bases, not political violence threatening Iraq’s long-term stability. Even worse, the British have left from Iraq, and they had the institutional knowledge of how to fight this weapon, including the use of simple devices that can tell if MAIEDs are on vehicles.

Iraq is much safer now than it was in 2007, especially for U.S. troops, but we aren’t out of the woods yet. If the use of sticky bombs tells us anything — think Northern Ireland — then we still have quite a long way to go. A stable and prosperous Iraq is in the United States and the Middle East’s interest. We can’t give up, not while MAIEDs continue to wound, kill and maim men, women and children in Iraq.

Captain Michael Cummings writes for www.onviolence.com, a blog on military and foreign affairs. He is an active duty military officer who deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and recently returned from a deployment to Iraq.