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thedrifter
03-31-06, 08:19 AM
Expert from L.A. police teaches Marines about roadside bombs
- John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

Qaim, Iraq -- In a rundown shack on the Syrian border, a thickly muscled, bald, 55-year-old detective is figuring out how some of the most ingenious bombs on earth work. And teaching people how to avoid being killed by them.

Camp Gannon, a dusty, cruddy collection of buildings and shacks on the edge of a great desert, is temporarily home for Detective Ralph Morten of the Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad. There, he studies the craft and engineering that go into improvised explosive devices, the ubiquitous IEDs that have plagued American soldiers and Marines since the beginning of the war in Iraq.

"The bombs you see out here are incredibly sophisticated," Morten said last week in an interview at the Marine base outside Qaim. "Far more sophisticated than anything we see in Los Angeles. These people have really taken it to a new high."

Morten still works for the LAPD, but he has been loaned to the Marines to help them learn how to avoid IEDs and how to help eliminate them from the insurgents' arsenal. He instructs them on IEDs, and he goes on patrol with them.

Since the insurgency arose, the military has focused on finding the IEDs planted on the roads and removing or destroying them. Or looking for weapons caches or the bombmakers. But that met with limited success.

For Morten, it's about basic police work. He figured that the best way was to go after the source of the triggering mechanisms.

"It's like the cocaine wars in the '80s," he said. "We used to arrest street pushers all the time, but the drugs kept on coming. It wasn't until we went after the drug cartels that we started seeing a difference on the street."

The explosive devices, he said, rely on certain types of materials that are not always readily available. Some use pressure plates to trigger the blast, so you have to find out where certain types of metals and welding equipment can be found. Others are remotely triggered, so you find out who sells the long-distance cordless phones or electronic motherboards that are necessary to build those devices.

"These Marines are getting pretty good at this," he said. "They're going into businesses, talking to people, real friendly, just taking a look around. Just working it like a good beat cop -- know who lives and works in the area you cover, make a presence and gather all the information you can."

It's a tough job. Bombs are planted all over the country and go off almost daily. Last week, at least three IEDs exploded -- or were discovered before they detonated -- in and around Qaim.

This is Morten's sixth trip to Iraq. He typically comes for a month or two. In the past, he has focused on classes for U.S. Marines and soldiers on how to identify and stop suicide car bombings.

Lt. Col. Nick Marano, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Division, which controls the region around Qaim, said Morten brings a valuable perspective to his troops' security work.

"He's a real pro," Marano said. "He knows more about this stuff than anybody. We're real lucky to have him around."

Morten has worked with the LAPD's elite metro division for years. He's spent more than a decade with the SWAT team and is a supervisor on the bomb squad.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, every law enforcement agency in the country started wondering whether they would have to deal with terrorist bombings. Morten said he went to Israel to see how the police and military deal with suicide bombers.

"They were great," he said. "They opened their doors to me and we were able to gain a lot of knowledge."

After the U.S. military was sent to Iraq, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, Maj. Gen. James Mattis, met with the Los Angeles police chief, the top LAPD deputies and bomb experts to get help in handling the insurgency's bomb campaign. Morten went to Iraq for the first time in 2003, and has been going back regularly since.

Not long after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, the insurgents started planting crude bombs in the middle or along the side of the roads the Americans used. Usually, the bombs were left-over ammunition, such as artillery shells, and the detonating devices were simple.

The U.S. forces figured them out. After troops died. They put armor on their vehicles and learned to spot potential bombs.

The insurgents then started looking for more innovative ways to hide the bombs. They put them in animal carcasses, or taped them high on light poles so the blast would go through a window or into a gunner's turret.

Every time the American forces would figure out how the bomb works the insurgents would alter their methods and build a better mousetrap.

"This is an evolutionary process," Morten said. "Nothing ever remains the same."

Well, some things do. A lot of the IEDs remain as crudely built as ever. Military commanders say a lot of this kind of activity is the result of high unemployment. Young out-of-work men and low-paid farmers can make money to feed their families if they agree to plant bombs now and then.

But there appears to be a cadre of highly skilled insurgents who use more and more sophisticated bombs.

The detective from Los Angeles likes to analyze the latest devices and help the Marines defeat them.

"There are a lot of parallels to the gang wars in the United States," he said. "These are the IED wars of Iraq."

E-mail John Koopman at jkoopman@sfchronicle.com.

Ellie