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Tuesday, September 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. troops in Iraq lack body armor, chief tells Congress

New York Daily News

WASHINGTON — Thousands of U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March without the new body armor that can stop rifle bullets, and thousands more still lack the lifesaving protection.

"I can't answer for the record why we started this war with protective vests that were in short supply," Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told Congress last week.

Abizaid asked for quick approval of President Bush's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, which would include $300 million for body armor and $177 million to upgrade Humvees with chassis armor.

With money for new vests, Abizaid said, "I can tell you that by November, every soldier serving in Iraq will have one."

The military had no estimates of how many soldiers lacked the new vests, which cost $517 each, about $100 more than the old variety. But Abizaid did not argue when House members — waving letters from angry constituents with sons and daughters in Iraq — charged that as many as 30,000 troops in the region were without the latest model.

"Most of the soldiers who were directly involved in combat operations did have them," said David Nelson, the Army's deputy manager for clothing and individual equipment.

"We're trying to ensure that no soldier goes into harm's way without body armor," Nelson said.

Until 1999, the military issued protective vests designed to stop shrapnel and low-velocity handgun rounds, Nelson said. Newer vests — with ceramic inserts front and back that could stop high-velocity rifle rounds — came into use in 2001. There are no statistics on how many lives have been saved by the new vests, but the anecdotal evidence was uniformly positive, and field commanders gave them rave reviews.

Last month, Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told of a Marine who survived four shots from an AK-47 rifle in southern Iraq, with little more than bruised ribs.

Nelson said three manufacturers were ready to go into production around the clock once Congress approves the $300 million. Without the money, "We would drop off a cliff in terms of being able to continue production," Nelson said.

In his congressional testimony last week, Gen. John Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, said the $177 million in Humvee money would allow the military to increase armor on the vehicles, which have become prime targets of "improvised explosive devices" or remote-control roadside bombs in Iraq.

The money for the Humvees would provide armor plating for the soft sides and undercarriages that would protect the driver and three crew members from shrapnel and small-arms fire.

Keane said there are about 800 armored Humvees in Iraq, but he wants 900 more.

"We do not have as many armored Humvees as we would like," Keane said.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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