U.S. Forces Employ 'Buffalo' to Battle Roadside Bombs

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To combat the threat of roadside bombs in Iraq, U.S. military units are using mine sweepers called "buffalos" and other tools to try to find and disarm the explosives. But some soldiers remain frustrated by the limited options for fighting "improvised explosive devices."

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Much of the battle for Iraq is taking place on roadsides where insurgents plant bombs and American soldiers try to find them.

Brigadier General JOSEPH VOTEL: It's very much a--and I don't want to trivialize it by saying this--is a cat-and-mouse game, but it is very much like that. He does something, we take a countermeasure; he counters the countermeasure.

INSKEEP: That's Brigadier General Joseph Votel, who told us last week about responses to improvised explosive devices. A big part of the job belongs to American soldiers who drive huge mine sweepers through the streets. NPR's Eric Westervelt is traveling as an embedded reporter with soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division in eastern Baghdad.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Maneuvering aggressively through heavy Baghdad traffic, Army Specialist Paris Daniels(ph) is a driver with a surly attitude. Daniels worries when Iraqis get too close or don't move out of the way fast enough.

Specialist PARIS DANIELS (3rd Infantry Division): Some of them make the thumbs up, some of them give us the bird, you know. Ain't nothing pretty much they can do because we got guns and they don't.

WESTERVELT: Well, some do have guns and bombs, all of which can make this kind of Iraq road rage even more tense. It's probably easy for the 21-year-old to feel he rules the road. He's driving the Army's six-wheeled, 23-ton armored mine sweep.

Spec. DANIELS: So what are they going to do, try to run us off the road?

WESTERVELT: Its official name is Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle. Soldiers simply call it the Buffalo. The giant armored machine crawls along the new Baghdad highway, a main east-west artery in the capital. Backed by its security detail of heavily armed Humvees, no cars are allowed to pass. Traffic backs up for miles.

Staff Sergeant EUGENE CUMMINGS(ph): My job is to find stuff, keep our area of operation safe.

WESTERVELT: Staff Sergeant Eugene Cummings is with Echo Company, combat engineers, Battalion 164. He often directs the Buffalo's counter IED or roadside bomb missions. The Buffalo rides high off the ground with its massive tires. Its V-shaped hull and heavy armor make the vehicle less vulnerable to attack than the Army's main vehicle in Iraq, the Humvee. Sergeant Cummings and three of his men peer through the vehicle's thick windows.

Unidentified Man #1: Your right.

Unidentified Man #2: Right.

Unidentified Man #1: Possible, some wires.

Unidentified Man #3: Let's go.

Unidentified Man #4: ...(Unintelligible) Right.

Unidentified Man #1: One, six, two, three, seven of them. I couldn't see wires back here. I'm going to go ahead and poke around with the pole.

WESTERVELT: The pole is the Buffalo's 30-foot robotic arm. Like most of Iraq's main supply routes, the dirt roadside is lined with a maddening assortment of trash--random boxes, burlap bags, old tires, tin cans, food waste, cement blocks and a few dead animals decaying in the 105-degree heat.

Unidentified Man #1: Whoa! There's a dead dog up here on the side.

Unidentified Man #2: Look out.

Unidentified Man #1: Not suspicious. Still drive by, by this dog, to the right.

WESTERVELT: Insurgents use the trash to their advantage, concealing a wide array of complex explosives in just about anything. These soldiers, trained in infantry combat, have become `garbologists,' so to speak, examining every pile and new addition. Specialist Fred Cotton(ph) scans from the passenger seat.

Specialist FRED COTTON: It's a very slow process, lot of trash on the high--up on the roads, hard to find things. It's very hard.

WESTERVELT: Suddenly, Sergeant Cummings sees a strange football-sized rock in the middle of the road with something painted on it.

Sgt. CUMMINGS: Hey, you all see anything? Look around. This could be used as a marker or something. It looks kind of odd.

WESTERVELT: They see nothing else suspicious on this stretch of road. This day, the Buffalo's mechanical arm crushes suspicious boxes, knocks over a pile of tires and overturns an old rusty barrel that a soldier in the lead Humvee spies some kind of artillery or mortar round in the dirt.

Unidentified Man #5: It looks like it's on the left side.

Unidentified Man #6: All right.

Unidentified Man #5: Left side. Be careful when you're going up through there. Slow up. Slow up. You see it?

WESTERVELT: The round might be empty, it might not be. There's talk of blowing it up in place with C4 or calling in the explosives team. Then six children with wide grins and curious eyes run up and gather around the green shell, seemingly oblivious it might be part of a roadside bomb. A boy no older than 12 reaches to pick up the round.

Unidentified Man #5: He just touched it.

Unidentified Man #6: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: It turns out to be an empty shell from a mortar round. Soldiers move in, push the kids off with the help of Starburst candies and remove the mortar. Sergeant Cummings thinks it might have been an insurgent hoax to gather intelligence on this new strange vehicle roaming eastern Baghdad.

Sgt. CUMMINGS: The first time we've seen that. Periodically, they'll sit stuff out to make it look like something to get us to stop, to try to see, you know, if they're--how we use this vehicle.

WESTERVELT: You think someone's watching?

Sgt. CUMMINGS: Somebody's always watching this vehicle.

WESTERVELT: There are now more than a dozen Buffaloes working Iraq's roads in search of explosives. Equipped with the latest equipment to jam the signals of remotely detonated bombs, the Buffaloes have probably saved US and Iraqi lives. But roadside bombs continue to take a heavy toll on the soldiers of the Baghdad-based 3rd Infantry Division. Some soldiers here complain that they spend too much time peering at garbage and patrolling main supply routes. Soldiers want more raids, more arrests and searches for the insurgents who continue to kill with IEDs. Staff Sergeant Kevin Saebo(ph).

Staff Sergeant KEVIN SAEBO (3rd Infantry Division): I have no idea who I'm up against. I'd really prefer a straight-up fight than all this cloak and dagger stuff. They're running around, laying IEDs in the middle of the day, at nighttime, wherever we're not. And then we come by and somebody's waiting for us. I mean, doing this, we're just riding around waiting to get hit.

WESTERVELT: Private First Class Michael Maker's(ph) best friend in Bravo Company, PFC Kenneth Zigler(ph), was recently killed by an IED. Maker's angry about it, but he also knows that counterinsurgency is a precise and difficult kind of combat built on solid intelligence.

Private First Class MICHAEL MAKER (Bravo Company): You know our hands are tied to an extent. We have to have, you know, certain information to go, you know, find this guy. And it makes us kind of feel helpless sometimes, you know. It kind of makes you mad that you can't just go, you know, breaking down doors looking for people. And when you do start kicking down doors and stuff, that just makes other people--Iraqis mad at you.

WESTERVELT: On patrol with the Buffalo, locals stare at the odd-looking truck with the mechanical arm as it lumbers down the road. For now, the Buffalo's newness may be an advantage. Captain Todd Duncan is Echo Company's commander.

Captain TODD DUNCAN (Commander, Echo Company): No one's really seen it, at least in this sector of Baghdad. So no one's actually targeting it and it's still kind of a mystery to everybody what it does. So it makes it more survivable cause they don't know, you know, where it is, what it is and, you know, what actually it's doing.

WESTERVELT: Soldiers here know that's likely to change. Everything in Iraq, it seems, eventually becomes a target. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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