In southern Iraq, where U.S. troops and the remnants of the multinational coalition wage a low-intensity war against militant factions themselves at war with each other, soldiers say one of the enemy's weapons has blown their confidence more than all the others. So called EFPs, or Explosively Formed Penetrators, have become the weapon du jour among the Shi'ite fighters. The devices cap a tube or pipe full of explosives with a solid copper disk that, due to the force and heat of the blast, transforms itself into an armor-piercing slug. EFPs can destroy Humvees and disable even the Abrams tank. U.S. officials insist the weapons are made or at least designed in Iran but have so far failed to produce a direct link. And while EFPs are only a small fraction of the bombs used by opponents of the U.S., news reports say that they caused 23 of the 69 U.S. fatalities in the month of July. To the soldiers who face the threat on a daily basis here, it doesn't really matter whether EFPs come from Iran or are made in Iraq. They just hope and pray they can find them and disarm them before they explode.
That tension was evident on a U.S. patrol this week to a remote outpost in Babil Province, which strides a sectarian fault line between Sunni central Iraq and the Shi'ite south. On their way to an area infested with Sunni fighters loyal to al-Qaeda, U.S. soldiers had to pass through a sector heavily influenced by the Jaish al Mahdi, the militia headed by radical Shi'a cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose fighters have used many EFPs against U.S. troops with devastating effect. The Americans said they almost preferred al-Qaeda territory. "I don't think you'll find a guy out here who'll be scared to take these dudes on with a rifle," says Sgt. Jason Fagan, 28, a former Arkansas deputy sheriff who rode as truck commander riding shotgun. "Every EFP that goes off kills something like two-point-five soldiers," Fagan says in a thick drawl. "That's the only thing I'm really afraid of out here."
With only a month to go on their 13-month tour, the Alaska-based paratroopers didn't take chances. They arrived here a year ago and already four members of their 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, have been killed by EFPs. Pulling up on a checkpoint manned by a half-dozen new members of a local citizen militia organized by local sheiks and supported by the U.S. military, Fagan's gunner spotted a suspicious-looking object alongside the road: a half-empty Gatorade bottle with a wooden stake stuck through it.
"Looks like some sort of marking device. See it? Right there, where that trail comes out?" said Sgt. Lewis Elvis, the gunner. All the vehicles halted in the road. Radios squawked and screeched. Iraqi recruits ran up from their post wearing orange armbands and totting short-stocked AK-47s. The Iraqis would secure it and check it once the American convoy rolled on. "It just looked a little weird," the gunner said on the intra-vehicle radio from his turret. "Better safe than sorry," he said.
No one hassled him for being over-cautious. As they rolled on, they continued scouring the path for anything else out of the norm. Their commanders have used discretionary funds to hire local workers to clear the brush back 10 meters or so from the road. They say it's cheaper than a life. Back at their base, they have a display of an EFP in the hallway to the chow hall that soldiers must pass three times a day. The command post walls are lined with photos of bombs the battalion has discovered and the damage they can do to their vehicles when they don't.
"They can hide that thing [an EFP] in a freakin' peanut butter jar and toss it in the dirt. It don't matter how big it is," says Fagan as his convoy inched forward. "Its just molten copper ripping through these Humvees," says Sgt. Matthew Stankan, 22, the driver. "It goes in one side and out the other and takes everything in between with it." Elvis, the gunner, still seemed a little insecure about stopping the entire convoy's progress to investigate a Gatorade bottle. He spoke quietly into his headset mic. "The colonel hit it right on the head when he said that those things are 'demoralizing,'" he says. "Damn straight. Ain't nothing you can do."