The voice bellowed the customary alert over the radio: "Fire in the hole!"
On the horizon, in an instant, the earth leaped up — a black curtain of soil and debris streaked with fire. A heartbeat later, the shock wave and thunder jolted this fort-like compound, a half-mile away.
Explosion by meticulously planned explosion, a little-known U.S. Army outfit has not so quietly notched one success here in Iraq, a country known more for failure these days.
The band of ordnance experts has destroyed 366,000 tons of leftover Iraqi munitions, enough explosive power for an endless supply of makeshift roadside bombs, or "improvised explosive devices," the Iraqi insurgents' No. 1 killer of American troops.
Perhaps 150,000 tons remain out there, however, some of it exposed to pilferage by anti-U.S. forces. Noted Brad McCowan, civilian manager of the Coalition Munitions Clearance Program, "It doesn't take much to make an IED," some of which are as simple as mortar shells lashed together.
The amount of explosives in the destroyed munitions — not including the casings and coverings — theoretically could have made almost 1 million 200-pound roadside bombs.
Since its start six months after the U.S. invasion in early 2003, the private contractors of the munitions demolition project have cleared 66 large Iraqi sites of a vast array of weaponry — from rifle ammunition and hand grenades to sea mines, artillery, tank and mortar rounds, rockets and aerial bombs. It's all a legacy of decades of arms buildup under Saddam Hussein.
'One large ammo dump'
Initial estimates of the deadly lode to be destroyed ranged from 2 million tons down to 600,000 tons. The lower end is now considered more accurate.
"People talk about Iraq being one large ammo dump, and that's what it is," said Lt. Col. Garry Bush, 41, of Tecumseh, Mich., the Army officer in charge of the program.
Clearing that ammo dump has been a costly job: More than 100 Iraqi, American and other civilian employees have been killed since 2003, although only five — three Americans, two Iraqis — have died in munitions handling accidents. The rest were killed by roadside bombs, snipers and the other deadly dangers of Iraq at war.
Disposing of the explosives has other costs, too: some $1.1 billion through this fiscal year, according to Lt. Col. Bush. It's worth it, he said. Although the number of IED attacks has escalated steadily through the years, it might have been worse.
"We're keeping a lot of material out of the bad guys' hands," Bush said.
IEDs still exist
The "UXO" — unexploded ordnance — specialists are currently clearing seven remaining sites, including this old-regime supply base in parched farmlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.
From a square "fort" 250 feet on each side — surrounded by 10-foot-high walls of dirt-filled barriers and corner gun towers — a team from Pasadena, Calif.-based Tetra Tech Inc. ranges over the flat, wind-swept site beyond: six square miles once dotted with dozens of sunken munitions magazines, hangar-sized structures under steel, earth-covered roofs.
In 2003, before the Americans arrived, some 120 local scavengers were killed at this site, one by one, as they stripped valuable brass and copper from artillery rounds, said Sheik Karim Faraj, head of the local al-Swalim tribe.
Now, he said, the demolition blasts one mile from his village are "no problem," especially since more than 150 of his men hold jobs at "ASP 8" as laborers or security guards, a welcome boost in an impoverished countryside.
The ordnance team, under Army Corps of Engineers oversight, are down to their last 11 magazines here. They methodically empty each, one by one, of rusting remnants from a defunct army: mostly run-of-the-mill artillery and mortar rounds ranging up to 155mm, but also including some oversized specimens, such as 8-inch artillery rounds sold by the United States to Iraq when it was fighting Iran in the 1980s.
Their sweeps also have turned up a couple of dozen 240mm mortar rounds — unusual 5-foot-long giants. "That can make one hell of an IED," said Cliff Coulson-Bonner, an Australian senior UXO specialist with Tetra Tech.
On this day, the team has carefully arranged 24 tons' worth of munitions in several deep pits for a "demolition shot," with C4 explosive as an initiator and several feet of earth on top to limit flying fragments. A relatively small "shot," it nonetheless rocked the landscape with its power.
Back at his office on Baghdad's outskirts, McCowan, 51, of Huntsville, Ala., who helped start the project in 2003, said the work grows more difficult as more and more ordnance must be dug up — some buried by earth turned up by U.S. bombing in 2003, some hidden by old-regime loyalists in backyards and other unlikely places.
"Some folks thought we'd finish up a year ago, but that's not realistic," he said.
He now envisions sending smaller teams to help Army units turning up smaller weapons caches across Iraq. "I believe we'll be here as long as the U.S. military is here," he said.