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By Mohammed Abbas
CAMP TAJI, Iraq (Reuters) - The robot scout and the lumbering man in a sealed helmet bring space travel to mind, but in this Iraqi desert moonscape they are part of training for one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth.
At Camp Taji, a U.S. military base near Baghdad, bomb disposal experts are teaching Iraqis to take over once they leave, their withdrawal due by 2012 under a U.S.-Iraqi pact.
Although violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since the worst of the violence after the 2003 U.S. invasion, bombings still kill scores of people each month. Two huge truck bombs in central Baghdad killed almost 100 people on August 19 alone.
The Iraqi army has been rebuilt from scratch since Saddam Hussein's fall, and the skills that U.S. bomb disposal experts pass on to their Iraqi peers will be vital in saving lives.
A suspected bomb is usually first investigated by a remote controlled robot, then often by an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert in a bomb suit of head-to-toe body armour.
"There's an EOD saying, 'Once a team leader puts on a bomb suit it's the longest walk'," said Staff Sergeant David Hugee, a U.S. EOD team leader, referring to the tense approach a bomb disposal expert must make to a device as colleagues take cover.
The suit is suffocating in Iraq's intense heat and its armour plates restrict movement. But the experts become highly aware of everything going on around them even though the helmet, which looks like an astronaut's, muffles the outside world.
"A thousand things race through your mind. Your senses are more acute and your situational awareness goes through the roof. You notice everything -- leaves rustling in the trees, the wind blowing, your heart beating," Hugee said.
Sometimes, a colleague joked darkly, you might also hear only the "b" in "boom."
At Taji, four Iraqi army staff received training this week from a U.S. EOD team, unworried by the danger of working with bombs that are often planted by insurgents in densely populated areas such as markets.
"I never feel nervous or scared. I work as if it's not a bomb, just a stone," said one Iraqi soldier who was practising controlling a bomb investigation robot.
The wobbly waist-high device, consisting of cameras and a mechanical arm mounted on mini tank treads, struggled to grip a piece of metal, the arm's claw snapping at the air.
"If I think about the dangers I wouldn't be able to work ... one mistake and it's all over," added the soldier.
"INITIAL SUCCESS OR TOTAL FAILURE"
Last month, a bomb disposal accident killed 11 Iraqi troops in northern Iraq. Clearly Iraqi forces are still learning.
EOD experts face not only bombs planted by insurgents, but also Saddam-era ordnance that still litters Iraq.
At Taji, a makeshift museum of defused ordnance includes six-foot high missiles, mines, mortars and launching devices.
"There's a lot of pressure ... when you're dealing with explosives, there's often only one chance to get things right. There's a saying in the EOD 'Initial success or total failure'," said EOD team member first lieutenant Clay Kirkpatrick.
EOD experts had different reasons for doing such a dangerous job, recently thrust into the spotlight by the critically acclaimed film 'The Hurt Locker', about a risk-taking maverick EOD team leader in Iraq.
One soldier said he enjoys the technical aspect of undoing an explosive device; another, the challenge of working under pressure. Kirkpatrick had a different reason: "You get to use explosives. You're living every 10 year-old's dream, making something go boom."
(Editing by Missy Ryan and David Stamp)

Reuters