The American military is rushing delivery of dozens of bomb-detection dogs to Iraq after accusations that widely used mechanical devices are ineffective to pinpoint explosives at checkpoints and other search sites, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
The first shipment of dogs — 25 expected Friday — comes amid pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for security lapses after suspected Sunni militants scored a series of successes in carrying out major bombings in Baghdad, killing hundreds since August. The attacks have hurt his government's standing before next month's elections to pick Iraq's next parliament and leaders.
Another 120 bomb-sniffing dogs are scheduled to arrive in Iraq over the next 12 months in Iraq, Army Maj. Sylvester Wegwu, a senior military adviser at the Baghdad Police College, told The Associated Press.
"We have more requests than we have dogs and handlers," added police Brig. Gen. Mohammad Mesheb Hajea, who is in charge of the training program.
The worries over security are strong enough to overcome reluctance among Iraqi forces to use canines because of Islamic religious taboos that consider dogs unclean animals. While U.S. troops and foreign private security firms often used sniffing dogs, Iraqis relied on them far less — both because troops didn't like using them and Iraqi citizens didn't like being searched by them.
"Our culture is different from the European culture and the American culture," said Hajea, who also runs his own veterinary clinic in Baghdad.
It's part of a wider re-evaluation of tactics and equipment by Iraq's security forces.
Some shifts have been prompted by new strategies by insurgents, including car-bomb makers hiding explosives deep inside frames or engines.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said Iraqi authorities have requested scanners capable of peering inside sealed portions of vehicles.
Handheld wand criticized
But Iraq also had faced charges of relying on flawed devices — a wand-like, handheld mechanism known as ADE-651. Last month, British authorities banned its export to Iraq and Afghanistan after a BBC report raised serious questions about its ability to detect explosives.
Iraqi officials initially defended the hand-held machine, but now appear to be backing down and looking for alternatives.
American commanders have been strongly urging Iraqi forces to abandon the ADE-651, repeatedly telling security officials they did not work following major bombings against government sites in August, October and December, according to a high-ranking U.S. military officer with knowledge of the discussions.
The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to the media.
Use of bomb-hunting dogs has become more pronounced in some areas of Baghdad in recent weeks, appearing to coincide with news that the detection devices were faulty. U.S. military K-9 units have also joined patrols and searches with Iraqi patrols because of the high demand.
The order for the dogs was put in last year, though the U.S. stepped up delivery of the first group at the Iraqi government's request.
Besides the religious sensitivities, Iraqi forces are also simply not used to working with dogs, causing some initial resistance to expanding the program, Hajea said. During Saddam Hussein's regime, only a limited number of dogs were deployed at sites such as airports, bus terminals, train stations and ports.
1,000 dogs could be needed
Iraq's current K-9 program only has 47 bomb, narcotic and patrol dogs in Baghdad and another 20 dogs divided up among the provinces.
Even the addition of the new dogs will fall far short of the 1,000 dog teams he estimates are needed to meet Iraq's security needs.
Because of the sensitivities, the job of dog handler is volunteer only, and dogs will be used to search cars, buildings and other areas — not people, unless they are suspected of being a bomber, Hajea said.
The military did not respond to a request for how much the dogs and training being provided by the U.S. to Iraq cost.
The dogs, themselves, cost about $7,500 to $8,500 a piece, Hajea said. That does not include the cost of the dogs needs — from food to medical care — over its working life span. A bomb-detection dog works an average of 12 years. Each dog-and-trainer team needs at least 45 days of training together.
Stress fractures a problem
The No. 1 injury to K-9s in Iraq is stress fractures to their legs because of the tough conditions they face, from terrain to debris, said veterinarian Ammar Hassan, who cares for the dogs at the police college.
One dog has already been killed by insurgents when it was gunned down in Mosul while searching cars, Hajea said.
At the police college Wednesday, one of Iraq's first post-invasion bomb dogs — purchased in 2007 from South Africa — was run through a search exercise to find a car bomb. Brahm, a Belgian Malinois, sniffed an SUV — one of the vehicles of choice for suicide bombers. Suddenly, he sat, looking up at his handler, Staff Sgt. Bassam Khleuy.
A quick search of the area Brahm keyed on in revealed an inert bomb made of ammonia nitrate and dynamite, common ingredients in bombing attacks in Iraq.
"Good, good," Khleuy says in English to Brahm, throwing him a green tennis ball. Minutes later, the two were caught up in a game of fetch.
Unlike police K-9 units in the U.S., Iraqi teams are rarely approached by children and adults who want to pet the canine.
Iraqi policeman Saadun Mazier, who works with a Belgian Malinois named Gina, does not believe the police dogs will change some Muslim feelings about canines. But he does believe many will come to understand their usefulness.
"They will see," he says, "how good the dogs work."