Printer Friendly

Control of concealing vegetation along rural routes in Iraq.


In support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 06-08, a brigade combat team (BCT) assigned to Multi-National Division-Center was located in central Iraq, southwest of Baghdad. The BCT's operational environment consisted mostly of rural farmlands and villages. Fertile farmland and vegetation was relatively prevalent throughout the area due to the proximity of the Euphrates River, which supplies farms with water through irrigation canals. The irrigation canals historically have been vital to the livelihood of those who live in the area. The Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and the Giant Reed (Arundo donax) grow along roadsides adjacent to these irrigation canals. (1)

Many of the primary and secondary canals parallel roads used as alternate supply routes by coalition forces to conduct patrol missions. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the primary casualty-producing weapons of choice for insurgents against coalition forces during OIF 06-08. The majority of casualties occurred during mounted operations when Soldiers were traveling in armored vehicles along roads throughout the country. As shown in Figures 1 and 2, the reeds (14 to 20 feet tall in stands up to 30 feet wide) grow along the roadsides creating an alley-like effect that provides excellent concealment for insurgents to emplace and detonate IEDs with minimal risk of being observed, thus creating easy access and evasion routes. The reeds conceal IEDs from early detection by mounted patrols and also create limited visibility and fields of fire around rural combat outposts and patrol bases.

The increased IED risk associated with the vegetation was a constant critical threat to the BCT during counterinsurgency operations, especially during the establishment and support of remote patrol bases. As a result, removal of the reeds was a high priority for commanders throughout the BCT. The necessity for vegetation control along rural routes will likely remain for future counterinsurgency operations and theaters of conflict.


Control of the vegetation along the rural routes throughout the BCT's operational environment was targeted primarily towards 2 specific reed species. Understanding the reproductive physiology of these target species is critical to implementing effective control measures.

The target reed species common to the central marshes in Iraq are Phragmites australis and Arundo donax. (1) They are large, perennial, rhizomatous grasses that are found on every continent except Antarctica and may have the widest distribution of any flowering plant. (2) The reeds are common in and near freshwater and brackish wetlands throughout the world's temperate zones. The reeds have a great affinity for growth along railroad tracks, roadside ditches, and slight depressions holding water, as they thrive through extensive water uptake. These perennials are known to live for three to six years. (3)

The reeds are typically the dominant species where they exist through formation of robust monocultures. They are capable of vigorous vegetative reproduction through underground rhizomes and often form dense, monospecific stands which can be over 30 feet in diameter. The plants generally flower and set seed between July and October. (3) Despite the large quantities of seeds produced, most are not viable. Underground rhizomes are the primary means of reproduction. Following maturity and seed set, the majority of the nutrients are translocated back into the rhizomes (up to 6 feet in depth) and the aboveground portions of the plant die back for the dormant season. (2) In Iraq, nutrient translocation was observed to occur approximately in late November, with new, aboveground growth appearing in mid-March. As the nutrients translocate underground, the dead vegetation remains standing until the next growing season, providing year-round concealment.



Throughout the overlapping periods that the authors were individually deployed to Iraq (September 2006 to June 2008), maneuver commanders considered the reeds to be a direct threat to Soldiers' lives, and took considerable measures to control them. Three methods of vegetation removal were used in the operating environment during this time frame: controlled burning, mechanical removal using roadside flail mowers, and manual removal by contracted local nationals.

The primary method of reed removal along alternate supply routes (ASRs) was through controlled burns conducted by military personnel as shown in Figure 3. Soldier safety was of paramount concern during the burn operations, and a division level safety standard operating procedure was created and implemented specifically for the controlled burn mission. Due to the high water content of the vegetation, the addition of an external fuel source was required to initiate and sustain the burn. The external fuel source usually consisted of a combination of JP-8 (aviation fuel) and gasoline, which was sprayed on the reeds prior to ignition. This method was very effective for short term control, but was ineffective for sustained removal. Burning alone does not reduce the growth of reeds unless the roots burn, which seldom occurs because the rhizomes are usually covered by a layer of soil, mud, and/or water. (4) Reed burns conducted at times other than late summer (when the majority of the plant's nutrients were above ground) resulted in reemerging stands with greater population densities. (5) Ultimately, due to the inability of the controlled burns to destroy the reeds' rhizomes, repetitive burning missions over the same ASRs were necessary throughout the deployment.

Mechanical removal through cutting or mowing is another method of suppressing reed growth, but it is critical to perform the cut during the peak growing season in order to have a significant impact on reemergence of the reeds. The optimal time for mechanical removal is when most of the nutrient reserves are in the aerial portion of the plant, reducing its vigor upon cutting. Improper timing may increase stand density. (6) As shown in Figure 4, the BCT operated flail mowers (nicknamed Razorbacks) that were mounted on armored trucks which allowed roadside cutting up to 15 feet from the base of the mower. This technique allowed Soldiers to remain within the armored vehicles while cutting reeds, but the equipment and technique received mixed reviews from brigade support battalion and forward support company Soldiers with regard to its effectiveness. Repetitive missions over the same rural roadsides were again required throughout the deployment due to the lack of rhizome destruction.


Utilizing contracted local national workers for the manual removal of the roadside vegetation adjacent to their villages did not result in effective control. Using machetes and/or "weed whackers," the workers attempted to remove the reeds from the roadsides. This method was much more time consuming than initially anticipated, and posed an increased threat to the workers' physical well-being by those who used the reeds for IED concealment. The extended duration of initial removal was compounded again by the need for repetitive missions due to lack of rhizome destruction.



Implementing a chemical vegetation control method in conjunction with physical removal methods mentioned above could help control reed growth throughout the reeds' active growing season and improve route security. Use of a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved herbicide that targets plants and is relatively nontoxic to humans and fish minimizes the risk to the local nationals and the environment of Iraq. The immediate benefit associated with this method towards the direct protection of human health from IEDs outweighs the relatively minor risk of any environmental impact potentially associated with elimination of this riparian zone vegetation. Procurement of the appropriate spray equipment could allow units to treat roadsides with chemical herbicides quickly under the supervision of Department of Defense (DoD) certified pesticide applicators, while reducing their exposure to enemy contact. However, presidential approval or an exception to policy of Executive Order 11850 (7) is required prior to the implementation of any method using herbicides.

The proposed technique for reed removal along rural routes is the implementation of an herbicide application method through use of a DoD approved pesticide and a right-of-way spraying system for the sustained control of reeds. The 2 necessary chemical components for the proposed chemical vegetation control method are an herbicide and a surfactant. The herbicide should be nonpersistent, nonselective, water-soluble, and designed to control the growth of herbaceous and woody plants. A surfactant is a combination wetting agent, activator, and penetrator; its mode of action breaks down the waxy cuticle on leaf surfaces, allowing herbicide penetration into the conductive tissue. The herbicide then flows throughout the plant (most importantly to the underground rhizomes and roots) for permanent destruction. Both chemicals are designed to biodegrade quickly and completely into C[O.sub.2], N, [H.sub.2]O, and phosphates, resulting in little to no persistent effects on the environment.

For chemical dispersal along the ASRs, use of a right-of-way spraying system, such as those commonly used in the United States by state-level departments of agriculture and transportation, is recommended. These systems are built on steel frames and can be mounted easily on an armored military truck. Boomless hydraulic sprayers (10- to 30-ft spray distance) are controlled using an instrument panel inside the vehicle, affording maximum protection to Soldiers from direct fire and IEDs. Sprayers are powered by an internal engine and have attached polyethylene storage tanks, allowing up to a 500 gal capacity with jet agitation, which permits adequate treatment of long routes without the necessity to stop and remix. Additionally, 300-ft hoses with retractable reels are available to allow dismounted spraying around walls, fences, etc. Optimal application within the vehicle can occur at speeds of 7 to 10 mph, which is comparable to speeds typically used to travel along the edges of these roads allowing vigilance for signs of IEDs.


The combination of a controlled burn without an external fuel source following herbicide application, or roadside mowing prior to herbicide dispersal, could be effective in sustained reed removal along roadsides. A combination of prescribed burning after chemical treatment was reportedly successful along the east coast of the United States. (4,8) The proposed chemical vegetation control method potentially could be effective in persistent reed removal along roadsides and would pose minimal negative impact to the host nation. When considering the use of chemical methods for vegetation control, the potential environmental impact within local regions must be a factor of consideration, compared with the currently used methods.

Use of the above proposed chemical vegetation control method by the US military is restricted by Executive Order 11850: Renunciation of Certain Uses in War of Chemical Herbicides and Riot Control Agents, enacted on 8 April 1975, by President Gerald Ford. The following is an excerpt from Executive Order 11850:
   The United States renounces, as a matter of national
   policy, first use of herbicides in war except use, under
   regulations applicable to their domestic use, for control
   of vegetation within US bases and installations or
   around their immediate defensive perimeters.... The
   Secretary of Defense shall take all necessary measures
   to ensure that the use by the Armed Forces of the
   United States of ... chemical herbicides in war is
   prohibited unless such use has Presidential approval, in
   advance. (7)

Therefore, the ability to use commercially available, EPA-approved herbicides to mitigate the threat to US forces by improving the detection of IEDs along the rural roadways of Iraq is impeded by Executive Order 11850, issued 34 years ago.

In the aftermath of the attacks within the United States on September 11, 2001, and the start of the Global War on Terrorism, the nature of military operations has changed significantly for US forces. The primary threat towards Soldiers deployed to the US Central Command area of operations is not direct attacks on their defensive perimeters (where Executive Order 11850 allows the use of herbicides to reduce concealment), but rather through attacks on mounted patrols and convoys, and by IEDs emplaced along roadways. Due to the limitations placed on effective vegetation control by EO 11850, it is imperative that a review of EO 11850 be conducted to obtain either an exemption for the chemical control methods discussed above, or presidential approval for their use during current contingency operations. An exception to policy or specific presidential approval may increase the ability to effectively control vegetation along these roadways in order to increase force protection for the Soldiers.


Due to the global presence of Phragmites australis, Arundo donax and related species, there is potential for the situation presented herein to remain a recurring threat to deployed Soldiers as counterinsurgency operations continue throughout the world. The environmental science and engineering officers, working in conjunction with entomologists in theater, have the ability to assist commanders counter this threat by implementing measures that would minimize concealment of IEDs and those who emplace them, thereby mitigating the risk to Soldiers. Force health protection personnel possess the tools necessary to aid commanders in reducing the vegetation associated risk through use of an environmental management alternative, but only if exception from Executive Order 11850 is obtained.

Controlling the vegetation will dramatically improve visibility along roadways, enhancing Soldiers' ability to better identify the IEDs prior to detonation. Better visibility and identification of IEDs along roadways will likely save Soldiers' lives.


(1.) Bailey P. Fact Sheet on Vegetation of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and Associated Marshland. Washington, DC: US Army Engineer Research and Development Center; February 2007.

(2.) Batterson TR, Hall DW. Common Reed-Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. ex Steudel. Aquatics. 1984;6:16-20.

(3.) Written Findings of the State Noxious Weed Control Board. Olympia, WA: Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board; 2003. Available at:

(4.) Beall DL. Brigantine Division--Marsh Vegetation Rehabilitation--Chemical Control of Phragmites. Unpublished report by US Fish and Wildlife Service; Oceanville, New Jersey. 1984.

(5.) Cross DH, Fleming KL. Control of Phragmites or Common Reed. Fish and Wildlife Leaflet 13.4.12. Washington, DC: US Dept of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service; 1989. Available at:

(6.) Osterbrock AJ. Phragmites australis, the problem and potential solutions. Cincinnati, OH: Ohio Field Office, Stewardship; 1984.

(7.) Executive Order 11850. Renunciation of Certain Uses in War of Chemical Herbicides and Riot Control Agents. Office of the Federal Register; April 1975. Available at: executive-order/11850.html.

(8.) Lehman WC. Project Benchmark: Ecological Factors Governing Growth of Phragmites and Preliminary Investigations of Phragmites Control with Glyphosate. Dover, DE: Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife; 1984.

CPT Dennis M. Rufolo, MS, USA

MAJ Rebecca A. Zinnante, MS, USA

CPT Ryan Bible, MS, USA

CPT Rufolo is a project officer, Environmental Health Engineering Division, US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine-West, Fort Lewis, Washington. Previously he was the Environmental Science Officer, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division deployed to southwest Baghdad from September 2006 to November 2007.

MAJ Zinnante is currently attending resident intermediate level education at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Previously she was the Environmental Science Officer assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. She deployed to the Multi-National Division-Baghdad from October 2006 to February 2007.

CPT Bible is currently enrolled in the University of Washington's Masters of Public Health program. Previously, he was the Task Force Marne (3d Infantry Division) Environmental Science Officer for Multi-National Division-Center, Baghdad, Iraq, from March 2007 to June 2008.
COPYRIGHT 2009 U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rufolo, Dennis M.; Zinnante, Rebecca A.; Bible, Ryan
Publication:U.S. Army Medical Department Journal
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Apr 1, 2009
Previous Article:Army transformation and level II preventive medicine within a deployed division task force.
Next Article:Fort Carson: an army hearing program success story.

Related Articles
South City News: Makeover for green work route; HARBORNE.
Brown Visits.
Plan, Build, Protect: Assisting Iraq!
Assured mobilty.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters