By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
The first picture of an Iraqi insurgent mine, believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 17 British soldiers, has been obtained by The Sunday Telegraph.
The device, which has been used by insurgents throughout Iraq since May last year, fires an armour-piercing "explosively formed projectile" or EFP, also known as a shaped charge, directly into an armoured vehicle, inflicting death or terrible injuries on troops inside.
The weapon can penetrate the armour of British and American tanks and armoured personnel carriers and completely destroy armoured Land Rovers, which are used by the majority of British troops on operations in Iraq.
The device, described as an "off-route mine", was seized by British troops in Iraq earlier this year and brought back to Britain where it underwent detailed examination by scientists at Fort Halstead, the Government’s forensic explosive laboratory in Kent.
The Ministry of Defence has attempted to play down the effectiveness of the weapons, suggesting that they are "crude" or "improvised" explosive devices which have killed British troops more out of luck than judgement.
However, this newspaper understands that Government scientists have established that the mines are precision-made weapons which have been turned on a lathe by craftsmen trained in the manufacture of munitions.
A source from the American military, who has been working closely with British scientists, said that the insurgents have perfected the design of the weapon and know exactly where to place it to ensure maximum damage to coalition vehicles.
The source said: "If you are travelling in an armoured Land Rover which is attacked by one of these things, you are in trouble. You have a better chance of surviving if you are in a tank or an armoured vehicle but it will ‘kill’ the tank."
British military sources believe the devices have been developed in Iran and smuggled across the border into Iraq where they are supplied to Iranian-backed anti-coalition insurgents.
The weapon first emerged on the Iraqi battlefield in May last year and since then it has been used more than 20 times to kill 17 British servicemen. The last two soldiers to be killed by the device were Lieut Tom Mildinhall, 27, and L/Cpl Paul Farrelly, 28, both members of the 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards, who were killed on May 28 in a district north-west of Basra.
The devices, which are impossible to detect, can be easily camouflaged and triggered using infra-red technology, remote control or by a command wire.
Earlier this year, The Sunday Telegraph revealed how a multi-charged roadside bomb, developed by Hizbollah in Lebanon, was also being used against British and American soldiers by Iraqi insurgents.
The first images of the deadly mines come amid growing unease among soldiers over what they believe is inadequate protection against insurgent booby traps.
Soldiers who have recently served in Iraq believe that their comrades’ lives are being put at risk by senior officers insisting that troops must conduct patrols in armoured Land Rovers even though they provide little or no protection from certain types of insurgent devices, such as the off route mine.
Soldiers have claimed that the Army’s policy of patrolling in Land Rovers and on foot in preference to the better-protected Warrior armoured vehicles is costing lives.
Many soldiers have said that the policy of using Land Rovers has, in part, been foisted on the Army by a lack of more heavily armoured vehicles in Iraq – a claim the Ministry of Defence denies.
Whenever possible, the Army prefers to adopt the lowest patrolling profile which the prevailing security conditions allow because of the belief that heavily armoured vehicles tend to alienate the local population.
But, with eight servicemen and one women killed by insurgent attacks in May, many troops believe that the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis is "all but lost".