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Saddam ammo still kills troops

WASHINGTON � Four years after the Iraq war began, the country remains awash in Saddam-era munitions that provide key ingredients for homemade bombs used against U.S. troops, according to administration documents and military officials.

More than $1 billion has been spent to clear about 15,000 sites of the unsecured weapons. To clear the remaining 3,391 sites, the Pentagon says it needs a portion of a $1.2 billion request for items to protect U.S. troops in Iraq.

Improvised explosive devices that use the munitions have killed or wounded thousands of U.S. troops. Defense Secretary Robert Gates estimates that 70% of U.S. casualties in Iraq stem from IEDs.

"Insurgents use munitions from stolen caches to construct IEDs," according to the Pentagon's budget request released last month.

Hundreds of buildings, in-ground bunkers, warehouses and buried caches also contain uncleared ammunition, the Pentagon budget request shows. The Army Corps of Engineers runs the munitions-clearance program.

The problem of unsecured munitions was obvious soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein in spring 2003, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said.

Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Army officer, said there weren't enough U.S. troops in Iraq to destroy the weapons. The munitions include bullets, artillery shells and missiles.

"It should have been taken care of immediately," Reed said.

Eliminating the munitions is a huge task, said Bill Sargent, who runs the munitions-clearance program for the Army Corps of Engineers.

More than 400,000 tons of weapons have been destroyed, and 19,000 tons have been set aside for the Iraqi army, he said.

"There's no telling how many soldiers and Iraqi civilians that we've saved by the amount of stuff we're taking off the streets," Sargent said.

Munitions experts plan to have all major weapons sites in Iraq secured by April, Sargent said. They'll then move to smaller sites.

Allied troops find new ammunition sites in Iraq every day, Sargent said, which makes it hard to get exact details on how much loose ammunition remains.

It might be impossible to stem the supply of materials for IEDs because Iraq has so many weapons, said John Pike, director of military think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

Saddam "never wanted to run out of bullets," Pike said. "And he never did."

 
 
 
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