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Iraq seen as 'one big weapons dump'

Improvised explosive devices  have become one of the most deadly threats facing American troops and convoys  in Iraq. NBC's Ned Colt reports from central Iraq on the U.S. military's efforts to protect troops from future attacks.
A military vehicle at Camp Anaconda in central Iraq is armored with metal plates to protect against attacks by insurgents.
A military vehicle at Camp Anaconda in central Iraq is armored with metal plates to protect against attacks by insurgents.Sal Aridi / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

"Just keep 'em coming", said Master Sgt. Richard Haggan from the bottom of a 10-foot deep crater as he called for more of the explosive devices.

Above the crater about a dozen soldiers were offloading vintage mortar and artillery shells from a flatbed truck in the desert north of Baghdad. The weaponry -- a fraction of Saddam Hussein's arsenal -- came in all sizes and shapes and originated from as far away as China, formerYugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.

Coalition troops have already seized an estimated 2 million tons of aging explosives, but there's still another million believed spread around the country. 

"One big weapons dump," is how the Americans describe the Iraqi countryside. "[They're] everywhere," Haggan said. "Every little village we go into on collection missions. There's buildings, there's houses being used to store ammunition."

This particular load was being layered in the crater like seafood and corn for a New England clambake. On the bottom were the large artillery shells, topped with mortar shells of varying sizes and then the lean, rocket-propelled grenades.

Haggan expertly weaved inch-thick blocks of plastic explosive among the rusting munitions, then topped off the explosive store with a couple of RPG launchers, and an armful of 60's-era rifles.

Old Iraqi ordnance goes up in smoke.Sal Aridi

Soldiers climbed into a Humvee and drove back to a safe observation point 500 yards away.

A radio called out to clear the area of helicopters and other low-flying aircraft. A few minutes later the shout of "Fire in the hole!" was heard and a 200-foot-high blaze of searing orange flame erupted from the crater.

Another load of ordnance was destroyed. For coalition troops that meant less potential material for the roadside bombs that have been used with deadly effect by insurgents in Iraq.

The bombs, known in military parlance as Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, have become one of the most deadly threats facing American troops in Iraq.

According to U.S. estimates, more than 1,100 have been used against coalition troops and convoys since June, killing almost 80 American soldiers, and an unknown numbers of Iraqi civilians. 

On Saturday, an IED cobbled together with two artillery shells buried under a road caused the death of three American soldiers and two Iraqi Civil Defense members near Baghdad. And on Wednesday, three soldiers were wounded when a similiar device exploded near Mosul.

The bombers are becoming more sophisticated in their techniques. Most of the IEDs are triggered from a safe distance -- by a mobile phone, a beeper, or a garage-door opener, military officials say.

"It's their weapon of choice," said Maj. Matt Cadicamo, a combat engineer with the 4th Engineers Battalion from Fort Carson, Colo.. He runs the Route One bomb squad, working at a small base outside Camp Anaconda to keep troops and convoys safe from attack.

Cadicamo has a tough job considering that more than 500 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Of those, 347 died as a result of hostile action and 154 died of non-hostile causes, the military said.

Analyzing the weapons
Camp Anaconda is a sprawling logistics base about 60 miles north of Baghdad and all roads and all vehicles seem to converge there. Route One is packed with targets for bombers.

The weapons "started out very crude," Cadicamo said. "They've worked their way up to daisy chain together a number of artillery rounds. They're using tank rounds now, a lot of them electronically, remote detonated."

For the patrols who've watched the process evolve, the increasingly imaginative and deadly devices are unnerving.

Specialist Benjamin Chavez's job is to escort convoys in and out of Camp Anaconda. He proudly stood next to a modified Humvee, wrapped in steel plate, an innovation born out of the desire to survive.

"We weren't expecting what was going on," he admitted. "Every day when we're going out, it's always something. Whether it is small arms fire, getting hit by grenades, RPG, we've been hit by it all so far."

Spec. Benjamin ChavezSal Aridi

Chavez and others respectfully upended the chain of command, by suggesting and carrying out improvements to their vehicles.

His Humvee was modified in a nearby hangar by a team of Iraqi metalworkers armed with designs, steel plate, and plasma cutters. They cut a square foot hole in the door at eye level -- to better see any threat and to be able to fire back.   

In order to adapt to the threat of attacks, close to 80 vehicles have been modified so far at Anaconda, from Humvees to flatbeds.

The flatbeds carry what looks like an observation post, a double walled tub of steel, with a locally made, heavy-duty gun mount that can carry a variety of weapons. Similar modifications are under way at bases across Iraq. Soldiers are using not only steel, but wooden beams and sandbags to better protect themselves. 

Chavis, looking forward to returning home after a year's tour here, said, "When you're out on the road you feel a lot more protected, especially when you hear something that goes off on the side of the road. You're sure happy when you're behind it."