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Thursday, March 4

Closing the Iraqi bomb 'supermarkets'

By William Cole | The Honolulu Advertiser

KIRKUK, Iraq - To find bomb-making materials in Iraq, you don't have to go far.

Just half an hour's drive out of the city, past mud and brick huts and into the sparsely populated sheep-herding countryside, are thousands of old artillery and anti-tank rounds.

Dug up out of big pits that look as if a dog had searched for a bone, they're haphazardly strewn about: a couple hundred 100 mm and 130 mm shells over here; a like number spilling down a low hill there; dozens of bulldozer-dug pits that likely contain more rounds visible along a mile-long stretch of dirt road.

Residents unearth the 18-inch-long green or blue warheads to pry copper bands off for scrap. High explosives are cast aside or sometimes pried out for use in cooking fires.

Others pick them up for another purpose: to use against U.S. soldiers in roadside bombs.

"We call them IED (improvised explosive device) supermarkets - they come out and pick up the stuff they need," said Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Shelton, who's part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team.

The Air Force and the Army's 65th Engineer Battalion out of Schofield Barracks in Hawaii are trying to close down the store.

Several days a week, combat engineers head out with Air Force EOD counterparts to destroy leftover munitions, piling up the shells, wiring them with lots of C4 plastic explosives, and detonating the stocks with thunderous booms that send mushroom clouds hundreds of feet in the air.

The combat engineers, or "sappers," specialize in breaching obstacles and destroying mines.

"We do that normally, but not on this scale," said Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Marsh, 31, a Bravo Company team leader. "So we're adapting to this country. As small as (Air Force) EOD is, we work really well with them."

Engineers from the 65th head out three to five days a week with the Air Force to blow up bombs. On one recent day, 468 pieces of ordnance - 120 mm, 82 mm and 60 mm mortars and 130 mm projectiles - were destroyed.

"There's so much out here - that wasn't a big day," Shelton said. "It's the big stuff, especially the 130s, that we're most concerned about."

Najat Ghafur Raheem, an Iraqi police officer who used to be an Army air defense officer and was in charge of logistics for the area, had pointed out the site to U.S. forces. He said there is much, much more.

Raheem, 39, who now works out of the Arafa police station, said through an interpreter that "on one night for one unit for one company, they received 30 trucks - 35 tons (of munitions) each."

Raheem said he came forward with the information "first of all, as a citizen of Iraq. Second, I am a police officer and this is my duty. And I would like to cooperate with coalition forces for the safety of the air base and city of Kirkuk."

With munitions everywhere, the demolition teams have a daunting task.

But Shelton, 39, out of Kadena Air Base in Japan and in Iraq since late December, said a difference is being made.

At Al Fatah Airfield, about 30 miles to the southwest in Al Huwijah, 1.6 million pounds of explosives, including 500- and 1,000-pound bombs - the biggest munitions cache in Iraq - were destroyed.

"It's just crazy they left all this stuff out here like this," said Private Chad Ashby, 22, from Texas. "Everyone can pick it up and make IEDs out of it."

Air Force Staff Sgt. Ray Pomeroy, 29, said artillery shells would be unearthed long after he and the Schofield engineers have left Iraq.

"Just judging by what we found here and how out-of-the-way it is, there are things they are going to uncover for years to come," Pomeroy said. "It's going to be a long time before this country is cleared of the munitions that got stashed here a long time ago."