ROUTE TAMPA, Iraq — At 8 a.m. soldiers from the Army's 467th Engineers set off on the roads of central Iraq, accompanied by a 45,000-pound armored truck called the "Buffalo." Their job: searching for the deadliest weapon in the insurgents' arsenal — the dreaded "improvised explosive devices," or roadside bombs.
Sometimes they get lucky and find the bombs before they explode, saving fellow American soldiers from death or horrific injury.
"Sometimes we have a bad day and they find us," quipped Sgt. Roland Galvan of Holcomb, Miss.
Homemade bombs, known here as IEDs, have become the biggest killers of American troops in Iraq, accounting for about 64 percent of the deaths and injuries suffered by U.S. forces in October. It was the fourth deadliest month for the United States since the Iraq war began in March 2003.
The bombs, hidden in garbage, buried along the highway and sometimes even stuffed into road kill, can be detonated remotely, enabling insurgents to inflict death and injury without risking the withering U.S. return fire they would expect in a classic infantry ambush.
"That's their No. 1 weapon," Sgt. Dave Weyant of Wichita, Kan., said of the IEDs. Insurgents "can sit off in a field, where we'll never see them, and attack us."
With casualties on the rise, finding ways to combat roadside bombs has become a top priority for the U.S. military in Iraq. At military research facilities in the United States, engineers and scientists are looking into ways to detect and defuse them.
On the dusty battlefields of Iraq, that task falls to soldiers like those of the 467th Engineer Battalion, who scour the roads looking for IEDs before they can target supply convoys and military patrols.
"We are the IED hunters," said Sgt. Matthew Hill of Ogden, Utah. "We make it safe for all the other convoys that come through here."
When the IED hunters set out Saturday morning, Weyant commanded the armored truck, perched five feet above the ground. The Buffalo's V-shaped, blast-resistant hull enables it to withstand an IED detonated underneath by directing the force of the blast away from the vehicle.
If a bomb is detected just off the road, Weyant uses his video camera to zoom in for a better view. Then he uses a crane-like arm attached to the front of the Buffalo to prod at the suspicious object. If necessary, he radios for Army demolition experts to come and detonate it.
"I'm glad we have the Buffalo," Galvan said. "It helps us a lot."
Driving in the lead of the patrol is the "Rhino," a smaller, South African-manufactured version of the Buffalo also capable of withstanding most IED blasts. If the Rhino spots anything suspicious, the Buffalo moves up to investigate.
"I'm kind of an adrenaline junkie," said Hill, who commanded the Rhino on Saturday.
Months ago, the engineers used armored Humvees during the hunt for IEDs. But as the bombs grew ever more potent and lethal, the Army brought in the new, heavier vehicles.
"With the Humvees, there's no way in hell we would go near a bag of trash in the road," Hill said. "Our lives are too valuable. Our job is to spot this thing before it hits a Humvee."
As the patrol set off on its six-hour mission, the soldiers of the 467th scanned the road for any sign of hidden bombs, no mean feat in a country where garbage, soft-drink bottles, plastic containers and other debris litter the highways.
The troops also watch for telltale signs such as potholes and irregularities in the pavement — either a sloppy repaving job or a sign that insurgents buried an IED in the road overnight.
"Hajji is greedy," said Hill, using the soldiers' nickname for the insurgents, taken from the term for a pilgrim to Mecca. "He wants to be as close to the road as possible" when placing bombs. "Sometimes they're pretty obvious, and sometimes they're hidden real well."
Weyant believes his team finds three IEDs for every one that explodes alongside an American patrol. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said part of the reason for the recent spike in American deaths is that the insurgents have planted more and more roadside bombs.
On Saturday, however, the team turned up dry: no IEDs. Still, the troops believe such missions have a deterrent value — like a police car parked in a tough neighborhood — even if no bombs are found.
Also, the hunt for IEDs helps the military learn about what has become a relatively cheap and risk-free way to inflict casualties on a more powerful foe.
"IEDs are so effective over here that any future war we fight is going to have them," Weyant said.