The beast and buffalo: Iraq's mine killers

When he climbs into his huge “husky”, a South African-made armoured tractor used to detect mines, Josh Streeter thinks of a 24-year-old friend who was killed in December by a bomb planted on the main road linking Baghdad to the northern city of Mosul.

“If we had got these machines earlier, maybe he wouldn’t have died,” said the 19-year-old from the 14th Engineer Battalion.

Josh drives “the Beast” up and down this road alongside “the Buffalo”, a six wheeled, 23-ton monstrosity, also made in South Africa, that pretty much eats mines for breakfast.

His unit, which was set loose with these machines a month ago, ploughs a non-stop path up and down this 400km stretch of road, which serves as a main artery for United States troops.

US forces in Iraq are currently involved in a major rotation and the Mosul road is a vital logistical route. Explosive devices have

killed dozens of soldiers and are often planted in the “Sunni triangle” north and west of Baghdad, where US troops are targeted on a regular basis.

These bombs, often homemade, are a nightmare for military personnel.

“They have killed most of the American soldiers in the past year,” said Colonel Christopher Toomey, who commands the 14th battalion’s 555th engineering group, but he adds: “They have killed more Iraqis.”

Faced with this danger, the army has been stepping up its patrols and demining operations with these two machines which, with their electronics, are worth five million dollars, said Master Sergeant Todd Wayne (43).

It is said the Beast and the Buffalo have the necessary armour to withstand any known mine blast. If they do take damage, the Beast hauls a trailer with a replacement chassis on which its armoured cabin and metal detectors can be quickly attached.

It is easy to feel safe inside the airconditioned reinforced hide of the Buffalo.
The body work is three-centimetre thick steel and double reinforced glass windows allow the crew inside to look out without a care.

Two infra-red cameras provide a better picture of what is going on outside, one at the front and one at the rear of the vehicle, on

a screen fitted into the dashboard.

Demining is carried out by an articulated arm several metres long, which also has its own camera and ends in a long-toothed rake.

The job of destroying explosive devices is usually carried out by specialised teams, said Wayne, who has 21 years of military service, but he said his men can also perform the task.

“These machines give tremendous confidence,” said Colonel Toomey, who is pleased to add that his team helps destroy most bombs before they can cause any casualties.

Toomey said about seven out of 10 are destroyed and that the people who plant them must be starting to realise that it is no longer “a high profit game”. - Sapa-AFP