US suffers first death in new armoured truck

BAGHDAD, Jan 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. military has suffered a first fatality in one of a new fleet of heavily armoured vehicles designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, the military said on Tuesday.

One soldier died and three were wounded when a bomb went off next to the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armoured truck near Arab Jabour on Baghdad's southern outskirts on Saturday. "It does appear that this was the first fatality involving an improvised explosive device on an MRAP," U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said.

The U.S. military has about 1,500 of the vehicles operating in Iraq, reducing its reliance on the less well-protected Humvee military vehicles.

MRAPs generally feature a raised, V-shaped hull and armour plating designed to protect troops inside by deflecting blasts from roadside bombs and mines away from the vehicle.

Roadside bombs are by far the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Iraq and acquisition of the vehicles became one of the Pentagon's top priorities last year.

A total of 3,929 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

The New York Times newspaper reported on Tuesday that the dead soldier was a gunner. Gunners sit in turrets at the top of vehicles and are generally the most exposed of any crew, particularly if a vehicle is flipped or rolls in a blast.

Danielson said the Arab Jabour incident was under investigation but did not think the soldier's death would change the military's attitude towards the vehicle.

He said the other three wounded soldiers inside the vehicle had not suffered life-threatening injuries.

The Pentagon had originally planned to ship 2,500 to 3,000 of the vehicles to Iraq by the end of 2007 but cut that number to 1,500 due to the amount of time needed to ship the large trucks, which can weigh up to 18 tonnes.

A total of about 8,800 MRAPs have been ordered by the Pentagon at a cost of more than $12 billion.

Much bigger than flat-bottomed Humvees, MRAPS can carry 6-10 soldiers. (Reporting by Paul Tait; editing by Keith Weir)