The voice bellowed the customary alert over the radio: "Fire in the hole!"
On the horizon, in an instant, the earth leaped up - a black curtain of soil and debris streaked with fire. A heartbeat later, the shock wave and thunder jolted this fort-like compound a half-mile away. Explosion by meticulously planned explosion, a little-known U.S. Army outfit based in Huntsville, has not so quietly notched one success here in Iraq, a country known more for failure these days. The band of ordnance experts has destroyed 366,000 tons of leftover Iraqi munitions, enough explosive power for an endless supply of makeshift roadside bombs, or "improvised explosive devices," the Iraqi insurgents' No. 1 killer of American troops.
Perhaps 150,000 tons remain out there, however, some of it exposed to pilferage by anti-U.S. forces. Noted Brad McCowan, civilian manager of the Coalition Munitions Clearance Program, "It doesn't take much to make an IED," some of which are as simple as mortar shells lashed together. The amount of explosives in the destroyed munitions - not including the casings and coverings - theoretically could have made almost 1 million 200-pound roadside bombs.
Since its start six months after the U.S. invasion in early 2003, the private contractors of the munitions demolition project have cleared 66 large Iraqi sites of a vast array of weaponry - from rifle ammunition and hand grenades to sea mines, artillery, tank and mortar rounds, rockets and aerial bombs. It's all a legacy of decades of arms buildup under Saddam Hussein. Initial estimates of the deadly lode to be destroyed ranged from 2 million tons down to 600,000 tons. The lower end is now considered more accurate. "People talk about Iraq being one large ammo dump, and that's what it is," said Lt. Col. Garry Bush, 41, of Tecumseh, Mich., the Army officer in charge of the program.
Clearing that ammo dump has been a costly job: More than 100 Iraqi, American and other civilian employees have been killed since 2003, although only five - three Americans, two Iraqis - have died in munitions-handling accidents. The rest were killed by roadside bombs, snipers and the other deadly dangers of Iraq at war.