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US Military Works to Counter Roadside Bombs

Iraqi Police and U.S. Army soldiers respond to the scene of a car bomb attack on the airport road in Baghdad

A senior U.S. military officer says there is evidence that more people in Iraq are being forced to become suicide bombers. The phenomenon has been noted before, but the new head of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General James Conway, says that type of attack is increasing.

He would not give any figures, but General Conway said more of the suicide bombers in Iraq appear to be having their bombs detonated remotely, by someone else, leading officials to believe they may have been forced into that position.

"The intelligence people are asking themselves, and we're looking at the forensics, 'Are all of these people foreign fighters, which we have seen at least be the tendency in the past? Is there some possibility that Iraqis are being forced into that condition by virtue of the fact that somebody has got their family 20 miles away?' We do have some indication that we're seeing more remote detonation of some of the suicide bombers than we have in the past. So we're asking ourselves, 'what's all that mean?' And we don't have the answers yet," he said.

General Conway told a Pentagon news conference that defeating another type of bomb in Iraq is one of the military's highest priority. Those are roadside bombs, what the military calls IEDs, short for improvised explosive devices.

"On a day in and day out basis, we see something akin to 70 percent of our casualties, both killed and wounded, attributable to IEDs. From the beginning, we have sought the technological solution, regardless of the cost, to try to find the device that would both detect and destroy the IEDs before our troops came within range. We have means of delaying the effects, so I won't get much more into it than that. But we still haven't found the defeat mechanism," he added.

General Conway acknowledged there has been an increase in bombings in Iraq during the last couple of weeks, but he could not say why.

"We have seen the increase. We don't know at this point what it means. We don't think it can be sustained because of the increase of what we have seen recently. But, again, that is a premier question for our intelligence officers, and they're working the issue hard," he noted.

Earlier Thursday, senior U.S. military officers told congress that insurgents in Iraq are adapting to efforts to protect coalition forces from roadside bombs. Brigadier General Jeffrey Sorenson, who works in the Army's acquisition office, told the House Armed Services Committee that the last year and a half has been a period of move and counter-move between coalition forces trying to protect themselves and insurgents changing their tactics.

"Certainly, we can characterize the enemy by being very adaptive, very smart, very learning, very innovative in what he's doing," he explained. "And it is very clear to us from watching him and studying him that he watches how we perform our operations, attempts to learn from those, and then attempts to exploit what he thinks are vulnerabilities."

General Sorenson said that when the coalition deployed radio jammers to block remote signals from being transmitted to detonate bombs, the insurgents switched in some cases to systems using wires strung to safe locations. As a result, he says the U.S. military is using different technologies to protect its forces from the bombs, including unmanned aircraft and radio towers that can provide long-term surveillance of particularly dangerous areas. But he also said one of the most important elements in the effort to defeat roadside bombs is better training, to help U.S. troops recognize and avoid or destroy the bombs.

The generals who appeared at the House committee meeting also reported on the U.S. military's extensive program to increase the level of armor on all combat vehicles in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the members of congress expressed continuing frustration that U.S. troops are dying in vehicles that don't have sufficient armor. But the generals said all the vehicles that need to be armored have been, and they are working to develop even more protective systems, without reducing combat effectiveness.