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ARAB-US RELATIONS - Jan. 2- Snipers In Iraq.

"I shot one guy in the head, and his head exploded", says Sergeant Randy Davis, one of about 40 snipers in the US Army's new 3,600-soldier Stryker Brigade, from Fort Lewis, Washington. "Usually, though, you just see a dust cloud pop up off their clothes, and see a little blood splatter come out the front". Working in teams of 2 or 3, army snipers in Iraq 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 as far as 800 metres away. As the counter-insurgency grinds into its 9th month, 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", says Davis, 25, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "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", says Lt.Col. Karl Reed, who commands the Stryker Brigade's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, Davis's parent unit. In the month since he arrived in Iraq on his first combat tour, Davis has 8 confirmed kills - including 7 in a single bloody day - and two "probables". He and his partner, Specialist 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", says Wilson, 24, of Muncie, Indiana, speaking at an austere base camp in Iraq after a late-afternoon mission. "You just think about the lives of the guys to your left and right". Listening to his partner, Davis nods in agreement: "As soon as they picked up a weapon and tried to engage US 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, Georgia, they learn to stalk prey, conceal their own movements, spot telltale signs of an enemy shooter, and take down their target with a lone shot. To qualify for the school, a soldier must already be an expert marksman, pass a physical examination and undergo a psychological screening. The rigorous course fails more than half of its students. The demand is great enough that the army has sent a team of trainers to Iraq to keep churning out new snipers for the war effort and other hot spots. As the army faces more conflicts where 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 the Sunni Iraqi cities, hotbeds of Saddam loyalists. The training paid off on 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 metres 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's unit - B Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. "The guy made a mistake, when he silhouetted himself against the rooftop", says Davis, who has 20/10 vision. "He was trying to look over to see where the guys were in the courtyard". Davis says that, as the gunman rose from the shadows to fire, he saw his head and then the distinctive shape of a Dragonov SVD Russian-made sniper rifle. Davis 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", Davis says, 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, B Company had walked into an ambush in central Samarra. Gunmen on motorcycles used children leaving school as cover to attack the patrol, Davis says. By the end of the 45-minute firefight, the sergeant, armed this time with an M-4 rifle, shot 7 of the 11 attackers that American commanders say were killed in the skirmish. "We don't have civilian casualties", Davis says 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 under cover of darkness. "We don't have the capability to survive a sustained firefight", says Davis, noting that snipers fire from distances well beyond their adversaries' weapons. "We use surprise and stealth to accomplish missions". Army snipers generally choose from 4 weapons, depending on the mission. Davis's standard M-24 sniper rifle, painted sand color to blend in with the desert, is simple in design. It has an adjustable Kevlar stock, a thick stainless steel barrel, a mounted telescopic and a day/night scope, and it is bolt action, rather than semi-automatic, like other sniper rifles. It sets up on a bipod and fires 7.62-millimetre ammunition, hitting targets up to 1,000 metres away. In the desert, snipers wrap plastic bags or condoms over the gun muzzle to keep the sand out. They carry their weapons in padded green canvas bags. "We baby the hell out of them", Davis says. They also carry spotting scopes, laser range-finders and barometres. Humid air can alter a bullet's course.

Hot, dry air can cause a shot to fire high. Firearms are hardly new to most snipers - Davis and Wilson grew up on farms, and both owned their first rifles before they were 10. They fondly remember hunting deer as youngsters. Both men are married with children, but say they do not talk much about their work outside their tight-knit clan. "We try to get away from stereotypes that you're a psychotic gun nut running around, like the guy in DC, or like in the movies, a cool-guy assassin", Davis says.

There are not many targets these men dread, but in the shifting battlefield that is Iraq, where seemingly everyone is armed, one candidate emerges. Would they ever shoot a child who targeted them? "I couldn't imagine that", says Wilson, a father of 5. But Davis has a different view: "I'd shoot him, otherwise he'd shoot me. But I wouldn't feel good about it".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 3, 2004
Words:1158
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