It's become a common sight at fancy hotels around the Middle East: security guards using a curious hand-held gadget. It's supposed to detect explosive materials. In Iraq, authorities have bought into the technology enthusiastically. They spent millions to outfit checkpoints around the country.

But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, there is a problem. U.S. military experts suspect the gadget is a sham.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Driving the roads of Iraq is much safer today than any time since 2003. Most Iraqis take comfort in the huge number of checkpoints along avenues and highways. At nearly every one, an Iraqi soldier or policeman will take out his electronic sniffer. A short radio antenna on a swivel sticks out horizontally from a plastic gun grip. If something smells fishy or dynamite-y about the car, the antenna swivels and points to it, like a superstitious well-digger's divining rod.

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LAWRENCE: Many American officials think the science behind these sniffers is about as sound as searching for groundwater with a stick. But in central Baghdad, a policeman at this checkpoint swears by it.

Officer HUSAM MUHAMMAD (Central Baghdad): (Through translator) One day, the commander called me to check a suspicious car, and the machine read Dynamite and C-4. I checked it twice more and then we called the bomb squad, and they discovered that the car carried explosives.

LAWRENCE: Police officer Husam Muhammad says that using the device properly is more of an art than a science, and he demonstrates how to walk with a steady rocking march, holding the sniffer out ahead of him.

Mr. MUHAMMAD: (Through translator) If we are tense, the device doesn't work correctly. I start to slow and relax my body, and I try to clear my mind.

LAWRENCE: But critics of the device say it works equally well with a clear mind or a clouded mind or no mind at all. One American expert in Baghdad compared the machine to a Ouija board, but he wouldn't comment on the record. A similar device made by a company called Sniffex was exposed as a sham by a U.S. Navy investigation. But the head of Baghdad's bomb squad, General Jihad al-Jaberi, says the devices have performed and saved many lives.

General JIHAD Al-JABERI (Head, Baghdad Bomb Squad): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: And Jaberi says it's not true that the devices are set off by perfume or soap. He resents the fact that the Americans deride the devices as operating by magic. The U.S. military command that oversees training and advice to Iraq would not comment for this story. But it may be enough to note that the antenna devices are not seen anywhere near American installations in Iraq, which rely on dogs to sniff out explosive materials.

Even among Iraqis, there is some recognition of the need to upgrade equipment, according to Adnan al-Asadi, Iraq's deputy minister of the interior. Al-Asadi says he recently headed a task force on the issue appointed by the prime minister. And Iraq is investigating newer technology. For the time being, Iraqi soldiers continue using the bomb-sniffing antennas, hoping this period of relative calm will last.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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