CAMP TAQADDUM, IRAQ -- While most other missions to make Iraq a safer place have fallen into the lap of the country’s new interim government, one mission vital to returning stability to the country will remain a U.S. military mission for some time.
Military and civilian explosive experts, with the assistance of some Iraqi soldiers and workers, are destroying many of Saddam Hussein’s munitions stockpiles scattered throughout Iraq in an effort to make deployed troops and the country’s people safer from insurgent attacks.
The ammunition is strewn all over Iraq and provides insurgents with easily accessible and free material to make bombs used to kill and injure service members and Iraqis in an attempt to damage the credibility of Iraq’s new government and weaken the forces here to support it.
The 1st Force Service Support Group, aided largely by the Army’s 120th Engineer Battalion and civilian contractors, is helming the mission for the I Marine Expeditionary Force in western Iraq.
Approximately 100,000 of the estimated 600,000 tons of explosives in the country are located in the Al Anbar Province, I MEF’s area of responsibility, said Army Capt. Elmer Bruner Jr., 41, who is in charge of the operation for the battalion.
The military has categorized the explosives into two categories. Captured Enemy Ammunition refers to weapons amassed by Saddam Hussein’s regime that have since been seized by coalition troops. Unexploded Ordnance includes projectiles that contain explosive properties but were scattered randomly across the countryside after bombings, misfires and failed demolition attempts.
Of the 103 known sites in Al Anbar thought to contain both CEA and unexploded ordnance, military assessment teams have visited 64 and declared 35 clear of both classifications of ammo, said Maj. David C. Morris, the 1st FSSG’s engineering officer. The remaining 29 have unexploded ordnance; six of those also contain captured ammunition.
The 1st FSSG has been working to assess the known sites and get some total numbers on what they are dealing with before coming up with a plan for each individual site, said Morris.
Much of this apprehended ammunition is decades old. Many of the bullets and bombs are out-of-date to the point that the weapons that fired them were rendered obsolete years ago. For example, Hussein squandered money on a multitude of missiles from countries as varied as South Africa, Russia and the U.S., for which he never had the equipment to fire, said Army Lt. Col. David Bornblaser, who is in charge of all captured enemy ammunition projects in Iraq.
More than 12,000 tons of CEA have been destroyed since the I MEF took the reigns of the province from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in March, said Morris, 32. Through constant efforts to detonate approximately 100 tons every day, three sites have been deemed clear.
What remains is expected to be destroyed by the end of September, said the native of Woodlands, Texas.
However, clearing the unexploded ordnance is not so cut-and-dry, said Bruner. It is randomly spread all over the country and there is no way to tell where it all can be found or exactly how much there is.
“(Unexploded ammunition) is still out there,” said Morris. “It’s going to be a problem for a long time.”
When the explosives are found, they are either blown in place or moved to a secure ammunition depot where they are detonated, said Army Lt. Col. Bill Bartheld, the commander of the engineer battalion, a National Guard unit from Okmulgee, Okla.
The guarded facility is necessary to keep scallywags at bay, said Bartheld, also of Edmond.
On several occasions, troops have caught Iraqis trying to loot some of the caches. Many times, the scavengers are merely hunting for brass to sell – the country has such a shortage that people can put a high price on the casings from expended rounds – and avoiding the ammo, but insurgents are also known to salvage any explosives in order to craft bombs to kill other countrymen and Americans.
Roadside bombs have claimed the lives of numerous service members and Iraqis, and they continue to be one of the insurgents’ most widely used weapons.
“This takes away a piece of their immediate cause of harm to the populace and to the soldiers,” said Bartheld.
Contracted civilians and military explosive engineers destroy the munitions. The larger sites are worked for months, with the workers slowly chipping away at the tonnage every day.
On several sites, though, Iraqis are employed to move and stack the explosives. One even has the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps guarding the cache and prepping the detonations.
The huge amounts of unexploded munitions expected to be found and destroyed is a little daunting to those working the project; Morris said he wouldn’t be surprised if the next wave of Marines sent to the replace those currently deployed doesn’t finish during their seven-month stay, either.
Nevertheless, while each detonation may be small when looking at total numbers, they make an impact when it comes to taking away numerous car bombs and booby traps, said Bartheld.
Although bombs are also killing Iraqis, the interim government doesn’t have the assets to meet the crisis head-on like the U.S. troops do, said Morris.
Besides, the new Iraqi leaders simply have too many other security concerns to deal with before they can address this problem, he said, and American troops are getting injured on the road often.
Despite its magnitude, the mission is worth the effort. Every artillery shell, every mine, every mortar or every grenade eliminated symbolizes one life saved.
“We’ve got a legitimate interest in cleaning this up,” said Morris. “It needs to be done.”