BAGHDAD - Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq's security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military uses.
The sensor device, known as the ADE 651, from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Iraq has bought more than 1,500 of the devices.
The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works "on the same principle as a Ouija board" - the power of suggestion - said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.
Still, the Iraqi government has purchased more than 1,500 of the devices, known as the ADE 651, at costs from $16,500 to $60,000 each. With violence dropping in the past two years, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has taken down blast walls along dozens of streets, and he contends that Iraqis will safeguard the nation as American troops leave.
But the recent bombings of government buildings here have underscored how precarious Iraq remains, especially with the coming parliamentary elections and the violence expected to accompany them.
The suicide bombers who managed to get two tons of explosives into downtown Baghdad on Oct. 25, killing 155 people and destroying three ministries, had to pass at least one checkpoint where the ADE 651 is typically deployed, judging from surveillance videos released by Baghdad's provincial governor. The American military does not use the devices. "I don't believe there's a magic wand that can detect explosives," said Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., who oversees Iraqi police training for the American military. "If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work."
The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. "Whether it's magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs," said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior's General Directorate for Combating Explosives.
Dale Murray, head of the National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs, which does testing for the Department of Defense, said the center had "tested several devices in this category, and none have ever performed better than random chance."
The Justice Department has warned against buying a variety of products that claim to detect explosives at a distance with a portable device. Normal remote explosives detection machinery, often employed in airports, weighs tons and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The ADE 651's clients are mostly in developing countries; no major country's military or police force is a customer, according to the manufacturer.
"I don't care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them," General Jabiri said. "I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world."
He attributed the decrease in bombings in Baghdad since 2007 to the use of the wands at checkpoints. American military officials credit the surge in American forces, as well as the Awakening movement, in which Iraqi insurgents turned against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, for the decrease.
Aqeel al-Turaihi, the inspector general for the Ministry of the Interior, reported that the ministry bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. Mr. Turaihi said Iraqi officials paid up to $60,000 apiece, when the wands could be purchased for as little as $18,500. He said he had begun an investigation into the no-bid contracts with ATSC.