Iraqi Insurgents Using Bigger Rockets

Roadside bombs and suicide attackers may be the biggest killers in Iraq. But in many ways rockets are equally vexing and disruptive weapons—and new missiles are being added to the arsenal. Since January 1, 2004, the American military has counted about 26,000 rocket and mortar salvos (including up to 60,000 separate impacts), the vast majority launched against U.S. or coalition targets. The strikes have killed 149 coalition soldiers and wounded about 2,600, along with many other (often unreported) Iraqis and foreigners working on U.S. bases. Missiles are less precise and lethal than car bombs, but the sheer volume of attacks is a constant stress on life for Americans in Iraq. U.S. embassy staff in the Green Zone have long grown weary of the late-night sirens that announce, "Incoming, take cover," rousting them from their beds into concrete bunkers.

Recent weeks have seen a drop in mortar and rocket attacks countrywide. But the size of incoming rounds is growing. Particularly in southern Iraq, recent attacks have featured 240mm rockets, which are about as big around as oxygen tanks. They have at least twice the explosive power of most other rockets in the field. "It's concerning as hell. They're very lethal," says Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the U.S. commander in central Iraq.

The 240mm rockets carry about 110 pounds of explosives, instead of the approximately 40 pounds used in the next largest common variety of missile. About 100 have been fired—in 40 separate assaults—since they started showing up about 13 months ago, and there was a flurry in the late spring, according to a military intelligence officer who spoke to Newsweek on condition he not be identified. He called the rocket "the most significant new [air] weapon in the last year."

American officials say they believe the missiles are imported from Iran and say markings indicate they were manufactured there—as they have been claiming for a range of weapons being used by Shiites against U.S. troops. About 80 percent of the 240mm rockets have been fired against British bases in the Shiite city of Basra, near the Iranian border. (None, as of mid-August, had landed in the Green Zone.) So far the 240mm rockets have killed four coalition soldiers and wounded 61. That's a higher kill rate than with smaller rockets—about 4 percent per impact, compared to less than half of one percent.

A recent near miss shows how dangerous they can be. On August 10, three 240mm rockets were fired toward the dining hall on Forward Operating Base Kalsu near the central city of Iskandaria. Two fell short, but one missile slipped below the hardened roof, designed to block incoming rounds from above, and just over the blast walls around the building. The military reported 26 injured and none killed, but the damage could have been far worse. The rocket blew a hole several yards wide through the building's metal siding. An air conditioning unit kept it from landing among the soldiers at breakfast.

The emergence of this new weapon coincides with a shift in the nature of the enemy. In July, for the first time, there were roughly as many attacks on the U.S.-led coalition by Shiite militants as there were by Sunni insurgents, who had dominated the numbers for years. (When asked about the breakdown by Newsweek, a U.S. military official would only give percentages—about 50 percent each, Sunni and Shiite—not the baseline figures.) Sunni insurgents generally favor mortars, and such attacks have been decreasing as more and more Sunni tribal groups sign deals with the coalition. It's Shiites who fire the rockets. So the sect becoming the most active in the insurgency also has the greater firepower.

Insurgent rockets are hard to stop and very public. A foreign diplomat familiar with an attack on one base pointed out that the rockets were launched during the morning rush hour, making a trail across the sky that could be intended to impress residents with the militants' strength. They can be fired from home-made frames that are little more than crude iron racks. Most important, they can be fired on timers. By the time they ascend through the radar U.S. forces use to track "points of origin," the rocket men are long gone. Attempts to fire back with artillery or air strikes will miss them but possibly kill civilians—which counts as a win for the insurgents.

The intelligence officer says that so far the 240mm rockets have the same range—about five miles—as other rockets in use, so they won't revolutionize the battle. The bigger missiles are also harder to hide and move around. American troops have caught some rocket teams off tips from Iraqis or by tracking them with drones. The 11 Iraqis suspected in the attack on Kalsu, for instance, are now in detention, and launches in the area have decreased. But insurgents have proved skilled at adapting to coalition tactics thus far, and there's no reason to think the air war will be any different.