Army sniper teams cool, quiet, deadly amid chaos of Iraq

Hunters kill rebel leaders, disrupt guerrilla attacks

January 02, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAMARRA, Iraq - The intimate horror of the guerrilla war in Iraq seems most vivid when seen through the sights of an Army sniper's rifle.

Working in teams of two or three, snipers cloak themselves in the shadows of empty city buildings or burrow into desert sands with camouflage suits, waiting to fell guerrilla gunmen and their leaders with a single shot from up to a half-mile away.

As the insurgency grinds into its ninth month in Iraq, the Army is increasingly relying on snipers to protect infantry patrols sweeping through urban streets and alleyways, and to kill guerrilla leaders and disrupt their attacks.

"Properly employed, we can break the enemy's back," said Sgt. Randy Davis, one of about 40 snipers in the Army's new 3,600-soldier Stryker Brigade from Fort Lewis, Wash. "Our main targets are their main command-and-control elements and other high-value targets."

Soldiering is a violent business, and emotions in combat run high. But commanders say snipers are a different breed of warrior - quiet, unflappable marksmen who bring a dispassionate intensity to their deadly task.

"The good ones have to be calm, methodical and disciplined," said Lt. Col. Karl Reed, who commands the Stryker Brigade's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, Davis' parent unit.

In the month since he arrived here on his first combat tour, the 25-year-old from Murfreesboro, Tenn., has eight confirmed kills - including seven in a single day - and two "probables."

He and his partner, Spc. Chris Wilson, who has one confirmed kill, do not brag about their feats. Their words reflect a certain icy professionalism instilled in men who say they take no pleasure in killing, and try not to see their Iraqi foes as men with families and children.

"You don't think about it," said Wilson, 24, of Muncie, Ind., speaking at an austere base camp near here after an afternoon mission. "You just think about the lives of the guys to your left and right."

Davis nodded in agreement: "As soon as they picked up a weapon and tried to engage U.S. soldiers, they forfeited all their rights to life, is how I look at it."

All soldiers are trained to destroy an opponent, but snipers have honed the art of killing to a fine edge. At a five-week training course at Fort Benning, Ga., they learn to stalk their prey, conceal their movements, spot telltale signs of an enemy shooter, and take down a target with one shot.

To qualify for the class, a soldier must be an expert marksman, pass a physical exam and undergo psychological screening ("To make sure they're not training a nut," Davis said.) More than half the students fail the rigorous course.

The demand for snipers is big enough that the Army has sent trainers to Iraq to keep churning out new ones for the war effort here and in other hot spots.

As the Army faces more conflicts in which terrorists use the tight confines of city blocks and rooftops to stage hit-and-run strikes, the sniper school has placed increasing emphasis on urban tactics. That makes sense in places like this city of 250,000, a hotbed of Saddam Hussein supporters 65 miles northwest of Baghdad.

The training paid off Dec. 18. Dusk was setting in, and Davis was wrapping up a counter-sniper mission when he spotted an armed Iraqi on a rooftop about 300 yards away. He said he knew the gunman was a sniper by the way he sneaked along the roofline to track a squad below from Davis' unit.

"The guy made a mistake when he silhouetted himself against the rooftop," said Davis, who has 20/10 vision. "He was trying to look over to see where the guys were in the courtyard."

As the gunman rose from the shadows to fire, Davis said he saw his head and then the distinctive shape of a Dragonov SVD Russian-made sniper rifle. The sergeant drew a bead on the shooter with his weapon of choice, an M-14 rifle equipped with a special optic sight that has cross hairs and a red aiming dot.

"I went ahead and engaged him and shot him one time to the chest," he said matter-of-factly. "I watched him kick back, his rifle flew back, and I saw a little blood come out of his chest. It was a good hit."

Three days earlier, Company B had walked into an ambush in Samarra in which gunmen on motorcycles used children leaving school as cover to attack the patrol. Davis, armed this time with an M-4 rifle, shot seven of the 11 attackers that U.S. commanders say were killed in the 45-minute skirmish.

"We don't have civilian casualties," Davis said of how he avoided the schoolchildren. "Everything you hit, you know exactly what it is. You know where every round is going."

In city or desert, Army snipers spend hours planning and setting up their positions, often during darkness. "We don't have the capability to survive a sustained firefight," said Davis, noting that snipers fire from distances well beyond the range of their adversaries' weapons. "We use surprise and stealth to accomplish missions."

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