SAMARRA, Iraq — The sun was sinking at the desert’s edge when Sgt. Randall Davis spotted his target, an armed Iraqi on a rooftop about 300 meters away. “It was just getting dark. I saw a guy step in front of the light,” said the 25-year-old sniper.
Davis knew he was watching another sniper by the way the man stepped back into the shadows and crept along the roofline to spy down on a squad from his unit — B Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. “Most people, when they get on a roof, will just move around and do what they’ve got to do,” he said in a recent interview here. “But this guy was moving slowly, trying to have smooth motions, trying to stay in the shadows.”
From his own rooftop position, Davis tracked him with his favorite weapon — an M-14 rifle equipped with a special optic sight that has crosshairs and a red aiming dot. He didn’t have to wait long before the enemy sniper made his second mistake. “He silhouetted his rifle from the waist up, trying to look over at the guys in the courtyard,” Davis said. His M-14 spoke once.
“I hit him in the chest. He fell back. His rifle flew out of his hands,” Davis said. “You could see blood spatter on the wall behind where he was standing.” Confirmed kill, his eighth — which includes seven enemies picked off in one day.
The deadly Dec. 18 encounter took place on the second night of Operation Ivy Blizzard, a joint combat operation aimed at clearing guerrillas from this city of 250,000, a nest of insurgent activity in the Sunni Triangle.
The operation is being carried out by the 5-20’s parent unit, Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (SBCT), and 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, out of Fort Carson, Colo. Snipers had attacked the 5-20 three days before the rooftop encounter.
“We had been engaged by snipers in here before, so I was hoping it was the same guy,” the Nashville, Tenn., native said. “It’s kind of a professional insult to get shot at by another sniper.” He seems to take his job in stride, though he admits he’s been surprised at how busy he’s been since he arrived here two weeks ago.
New urban-warfare threat
In April 2001 the Army began teaching urban sniper techniques as part of its five-week sniper course at Fort Benning, Ga. Army leaders recognized the emerging threat and realized that traditional sniper techniques of lying prone and stalking prey in the open would not be enough in a world where terrorists hit and run from inside city buildings and busy streets.
Army Sniper School’s urban training course includes lessons on concealment, shooting positions and more. The Army also added more snipers to field units as part of its ongoing transformation to a more mobile and lethal force.
The leaders of the Stryker brigade — the new wheeled combat vehicle that is part of the transformation — say their snipers have proven ideal for limiting collateral damage and civilian casualties in this guerrilla-style fight. “These guys are invaluable to our mission,” said B Company commander Capt. Damien Mason, describing how two-man sniper teams are deployed to provide precision fire against hit-and-run shooters or for counter-sniper work. “[Enemy] snipers have been a problem in this town,” he said.
The enemy sniper Davis took out Dec. 18 was by no means his first kill here. In the handful of skirmishes since mid December, Davis has been credited with eight confirmed kills and two “probables,” a count no soldier in the brigade has come close to matching.
Davis sees his job as vital to saving the lives of his own troops and takes no pleasure in the killing. “That’s one of those things you accept when you take the job,” he said.
Davis has been working in two-man sniper teams for two years. He’s a spotter and mentor for his less-experienced sniper teammate, Spc. Chris Wilson. In many cases, the situation dictates who takes the shot. “The roles switch up constantly between spotter and shooter,” Davis said. Davis, though, has done most of the shooting since his unit began operating in Samarra on Dec. 14.
It wasn’t long after arriving that he found himself with an Iraqi in his sights and his finger on the trigger. One night, he and Davis were taking sporadic fire in their position when two Iraqis burst out of a mosque with AK-47 rifles. “I shot the trail one,” he said, describing how the individual managed to crawl away, so he was listed as a probable kill. “He was hurt pretty bad.”
The next day, B Company walked into an ambush designed to draw them into the city. Before the day was over, Davis, armed with an M-4 carbine and an all-purpose optic, would be responsible for seven of the 11 enemy kills.
Most of the shots he took were while on the move at distances of 100 to 300 meters — longer than a football field, but certainly not the greatest distance from which he has hit his human target. On Dec. 20, he killed another sniper with one shot from an XM107 .50 caliber sniper rifle at a distance of 750 meters.
Davis admits he never thought he’d be this busy before deploying to Iraq. “This is the first time I have been in ever been in a combat situation,” he said. “Really it was just like targets down range – you just hit your target and acquire your next target. I thought I’d have a harder time shooting. Shooting someone is pretty unnatural.”
Early interest in sniper work
Davis is described by B Company 1st Sgt. Ray Hernandez as one of the best noncommissioned officers in the unit. “He’s very professional — one of those NCOs where you tell him to do a job, and he does it,” said Hernandez, who is from El Paso, Texas. Mason, the B Company commander, agreed. “He will make things happen,” said the 29-year-old from Kihei, Hawaii. “He will get the mission done no matter what.”
Davis said the toughest part of the deployment is that it means a year away from his wife and six-year-old son. Nevertheless, serving in a war zone is the opportunity to fulfill a dream he’s had since he was a kid. “It’s one of those things I wanted to do since I was 12,” he said, describing how reading about famous snipers was a favorite pastime.
Legendary snipers became his role models. Snipers such as Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, a Marine sniper in Vietnam with 98 confirmed kills, Sgt. 1st Class. Randy Shugart and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon, two Delta Force snipers, who died in Somalia in 1993 trying to rescue a downed crew of a MH-60 Black Hawk during the battle of Mogadishu. “What those guys did was amazing,” he said.
Born with 20/10 vision, Davis said he has been shooting and hunting as long as he can remember. His favorite deer gun was a Remington Model 700 bolt-action rifle in .308 caliber — the civilian version of the Army’s M-24 sniper rifle. “I kind of grew up with the rifle,” he said.
The interests of his youth made it easy for Davis to transition into a job he describes as a more humane way of fighting an enemy that can easily blend in with harmless civilians.
“I just thought it was a very smart way to fight a war — very lethal, very precise,” he said. “This way I know I’m not shooting civilians. Every shot you take, you know exactly where the bullet is going.”
Specialist James Wilks, 25, from Fort Worth, Texas, sits in the searing sun outside his barrack block in Camp Eagle, smoking a menthol cigarette. Beyond the blast walls, sentry towers and barbed wire lies Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb where throughout the summer fighters loyal to a radical Shia Muslim cleric have fought running battles with the American troops based here. A day earlier, fighting had flared again in the narrow, rubbish-strewn alleyways that for months have been Wilks’s hunting ground.
Wilks is a sniper and is proud of the three ‘kills’ he has notched up in the first six months of his year’s tour of duty. The first came in early April, during an assault on a position held by Shia militiamen.
‘It was night and low visibility,’ Wilks said. ‘But I saw a guy with an AK-47 lit up by the porch light in a doorway about 400 metres away. I watched him through the sights. He looked like just another Iraqi. I hit him low in the stomach and dropped him.’
The second kill was in July. Camp Eagle has been hit by more than 700 mortar rounds, usually fired at night.
From the roof of the barracks block, Wilks picked out a group of men behaving suspiciously nearly 700 metres away.
‘We watched them for an hour. When I was sure one guy had a weapon on his back, I squeezed a shot off and he went down.’
Killing from long distance is ‘weird’, says Wilks, who joined the army after six years as a poorly paid waiter. ‘It’s not like in a firefight, when it is really scary and you don’t think about it. When you are looking down the scope and no one knows you are there, it gives you a sense of power. You get an adrenalin rush, though I’m not sure if it is in a good way.’
Wilks’s comrades are proud of his success. Almost all the men of the First Cavalry’s Task Force 12 have seen combat. Scores have been injured and several killed. Long routine patrols are broken by moments of intense fear and excitement when units come under attack.
The Observer joined an eight-hour patrol along Route Predator, a key road leading into Sadr City that has been the site of regular bomb attacks and ambushes.
Apart from some wayward mortar shells early on, the patrol was uneventful – though the following one suffered two killed and three injured when two roadside bombs exploded. Sergeant Herman Groombridge, 35, and his men drive slowly up and down the pitted tarmac.
Groombridge points out a mosque from where gunmen opened fire a few weeks earlier. Jesus Sales, a 21-year-old who joined the army to pay for college fees, is the unit’s reserve sniper. He shot a man a few weeks earlier: ‘I didn’t feel anything weird. I just felt satisfied.’
Wilks is equally phlegmatic: ‘Sometimes I feel like I should feel guilty, but I don’t. Everyone I shot deserved it. It doesn’t bother me.’
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The pop, pop, pop of sporadic gunfire has drawn the attention of Sgts. Daniel Osborne and Cyrus Field.
Responding to persistent Iraqi attacks on a nearby U.S. military compound, the U.S. Army snipers have taken positions on the roof of a nearby abandoned building to sit and wait for the right moment to lock onto their target.
For them and other sniper teams now prowling Baghdad streets, a successful mission often ends with a ferocious craaaaack! And so it would be on this night.
A short time after Osborne and Field set up on the roof, the hostile gunfire on the ground is interrupted by four thunderous blasts. Then there is only silence.
“That’s a confirmed kill!” a voice on one of the men’s radio exclaims as the snipers sit on the roof scanning the streets below. “That’s the fourth one tonight!”
With the conventional war in Iraq all but over, U.S. forces are working to clear pockets of resistance in major cities like Baghdad where, in the face of advancing U.S. ground forces three weeks ago, thousands of Iraqi soldiers and other loyalists simply removed their uniforms and went home.
The battle is now being waged from rooftops and other vantage points against isolated attacks on U.S. troops. The enemy is no longer a conventional Iraqi soldier. It’s one who has chosen to strike under cover of darkness. U.S. officials here say some are former Baath Party members or Fedayeen Saddam, the militia run by Saddam Hussein’s son Udai.
American forces have responded to the threat in recent days by unleashing dozens of sniper teams all across Baghdad – such as Osborne and Field – to thwart those attacks.
Their standing order: Shoot to kill anyone who fires on U.S. troops or equipment. In the last two weeks, this team alone has recorded more than 20 enemy kills.
“All day, you build up for the moment when you fire the shot,” Field, 23, says as he and his partner take positions in a hostile zone. “Then there’s a feeling of exhilaration, and you feel like you’ve really done something for your country. You’ve taken someone out.”
But selecting a site for the night is the most difficult decision a sniper will make. It must be secure, and it must offer the clearest sight lines.
Deciding who and when to shoot is the easy part, Field says.
Long-range night-vision equipment enables them to see up to 1,500 yards. No shot can be fired without first clearing it with a superior. High-powered rifles, such as the M-24, which is sold as a Remington 700 deer hunting rifle in the civilian world, and the M-4, a more compact version of the M-16, are the sniper’s primary weapons.
And on this night, with loaded weapons strapped to their backs, the two men sidestep piles of garbage to climb a dark and musty stairwell before finding “the right spot” on top of a four-story building. They are here to find a group of Iraqi men firing shots at a nearby U.S. military compound the last few nights.
Most of those rounds have either hit a brick wall surrounding the compound, or gone over the heads of soldiers.
Lt. Col. Jeff Ingram of the 2-70th Armored Battalion instructed the snipers two nights earlier to track the men, who are firing a .50-caliber machine gun.
A single round from a gun of that caliber can cut a man in two, the snipers say. Take care of the problem, Ingram instructs them.
“What do you see over there?” Field asks his partner while seated on the building’s gravel roof and peering through a night-vision scope shortly after 11 p.m.
“There’s all kinds of people out on the streets,” says Osborne, 27. “Some are shooting guns in the air, some are just standing around. It’s hard to tell what the hell is going on. I thought none of these guys were supposed to have guns.”
A problem has complicated the snipers’ mission this night. Electricity was restored in some parts of Baghdad, and thousands of Iraqis around the city are in the streets discharging firearms to celebrate.
Some are firing pistols. Others are shooting fully automatic machine guns they have picked up in the streets in recent days, left by retreating Iraqi soldiers.
“Let’s wait,” Field says, a nervous tone in his voice. “It might settle down. We’re only looking for the guys shooting at us.”
For the next hour, the two men will sit quietly, scan the streets and make mental notes of who is going where. And they will patiently polish their weapons.
Neither man has slept much since the war began. Each night is a battle against fatigue, they say. Osborne, raised in Tomahawk, Texas, doesn’t sleep much more than four hours a day. Field, who grew up in Kailua, Hawaii, is no better off. It’s hard to sleep during the daytime in a military compound, he whispers, with soldiers driving trucks with no mufflers and loud track vehicles like the Bradley.
Both men said they were raised in religious households but have learned to separate their feelings from their duties. It hasn’t always been easy, especially when the person being taken out is so close, they say.
Two nights earlier, they strained to climb a 125-foot radio transmission tower, with 50 pounds of body armor and a rifle, looking for these same Iraqi shooters. They spotted them that night, Field says in frustration, but couldn’t get off a clear shot.
But tonight will be different. A few minutes past midnight, they hear the familiar sounds of a .50-caliber machine gun firing short bursts near a clump of trees 800 yards away.
Amid the machine gun’s dull pop, pop, pop one of the snipers pulls out a hand-held radio and calls the compound, confirming the building is under direct fire. Seconds later, a call is placed to Ingram.
“We’ve spotted these guys,” Field says, readying his rifle. “They’re back in action off to the west. Four of them.”
Ingram, who is preparing for bed, replies, “There’s no change in my previous order. Take care of it.”
Within 30 seconds, the snipers are in position. One rifle is mounted on a bipod. The other rests over the building’s ledge. There are no second thoughts about firing, the men say.
“This is what we do,” Field says, before looking down the barrel of his rifle. “I don’t think about what I’ve done until it’s over. And even then, I only pause for a moment or two. This is what I’ve been trained to do.”
Their green-image night-vision scope reveals four men standing around a machine gun. Each one is no bigger than the head of a pin from such a great distance. The snipers can tell they are in plain clothes and taking turns firing at U.S. soldiers before running to hide in some bushes.
Rapid flashes of light can be seen coming from the Iraqi gun’s ventilated barrel.
Within 10 seconds, Field and Osborne fire four shots. Two rounds are fired simultaneously. Sparks and flames are thrust out of the gun’s barrel as the trigger is pulled. Craaaack! An empty shell casing is ejected from the bolt-action M-24 and bounces onto the ground.
A fraction of a second later, another simultaneous craaaack!
Two Iraqi men are hit while standing next to the gun. The two others are struck while trying to run.
In just a few seconds, four Iraqis are face down within 15 feet of one another.
Osborne explains it’s not a “confirmed kill” until a U.S. soldier in a nearby Bradley Fighting Vehicle can look at the bodies to confirm the men are dead. That can take 20 minutes or more, he says.
“I saw them go down,” Osborne says, nodding his head confidently. “I know they aren’t going anywhere.”
The two men light up cigarettes. And then the conversation turns to their completed mission.
“I didn’t have any doubts we would succeed,” Osborne says, wiping his rifle down with a small rag. “No doubts at all.”
The long hours of training back in the States have paid off, he says.
“It feels good knowing this is over,” Fields says while preparing to climb down from his perch. “But at the same time, you know someone is dead on the ground over there. Now we have to get out of here quickly before someone shoots back at us.”
SAMARRA, Iraq — The intimate horror of the guerrilla war here in Iraq seems most vivid when seen through the sights of a sniper’s rifle.
In an age of satellite-guided bombs dropped at featureless targets from 30,000 feet, Army snipers can see the expression on a man’s face when the bullet hits.
“I shot one guy in the head, and his head exploded,” said Sgt. Randy Davis, one of about 40 snipers in the Army’s new 3,600-soldier Stryker Brigade, from Fort Lewis, Wash. “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 two or three, Army snipers here 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 half a mile away.
As the counterinsurgency grinds into its ninth month, the Army increasingly is 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 Davis, 25, of Murfreesboro, Tenn. “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, Davis already 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 a late afternoon mission. “You just think about the lives of the guys to your left and right.”
Listening to his partner, 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 own movements, spot telltale signs of an enemy shooter and take down a 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 (“to make sure they’re not training a nut,” said Davis). The rigorous course fails more than half of its students.
The demand for snipers is great enough that the Army has sent a team of 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 people, a hotbed of Saddam Hussein supporters 65 miles northwest of Baghdad.
The training paid off Dec. 18. Dusk was setting in here, 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 snuck along the roofline to track a squad below from Davis’ unit — Company B, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
“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 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 downtown 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 under cover of darkness.
“We don’t have the capability to survive a sustained firefight,” said Davis, noting that snipers fire from distances well beyond their adversaries’ weapons. “We use surprise and stealth to accomplish missions.”
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 and have children, and 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 D.C., or like in the movies, a cool-guy assassin,” Davis said.
There are not many targets these men dread, but in the shifting battlefield of Iraq, where seemingly everyone is armed, one candidate emerges. Would they ever shoot a child who aimed at them?
“I couldn’t imagine that,” said Wilson, a father of five.
But Davis had a different view: “I’d shoot him, otherwise he’d shoot me. But I wouldn’t feel good about it.”
FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. Marines awaiting orders to attack here are using a not-so-secret weapon to winnow down enemy fighters that commanders consider more effective than a 500-pound bomb: Sniper teams that target anyone suspected of being an insurgent.
In the past three weeks, two sniper teams attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment have shot down 90 people who have strayed into their sights. The two teams are part of the 100 Marine sharpshooters deployed by three battalions around the city. One sniper secreted away in another corner of Fallujah has “26 confirmed kills,” military officers here report.
“Every time we get to kill somebody, he is no longer shooting at the Marines,” said Sgt. Dennis Elchlinger, 31, of Encampment, Wyo., who is one of only 500 scout-snipers in the Marine Corps.
Elchlinger admits he doesn’t really know whether his team’s victims are foreign fighters or local citizens brandishing weapons in a bid to drive out the American occupiers.
“They don’t wear a uniform,” Elchlinger said. “It’s hard to tell the nationality of someone with a towel on his face.”
Most snipers since Vietnam
The role of the snipers here has been a stealthy one amid a cease-fire that U.S. officials say has been repeatedly broken by Arab insurgents. The snipers were deployed in early April, as guerrilla ambushes killed more than 50 Marines in the bloodiest fighting since U.S. troops entered Iraq last year. Not since the Vietnam War have American forces deployed so many sharpshooters.
Day and night, the sniper teams stalk their prey, well beyond the bases from which Marines control about a quarter of the city. From rooftops, in fields and around alleyways, the sharpshooters are an offensive force – at a time when most Marines are under orders to fire only when attacked.
A sniper team consists of four men, each of whom carries a sniper rifle, an M16 and a pistol, as well as extra ammo and a host of other equipment. They set up sniper nests from which they track suspected enemy fighters with special long-range scopes, thermal-imaging devices and computerized equipment. If the team agrees a person has “hostile intent” – such as carrying a gun or a rocket-propelled grenade – a designated sharpshooter cuts him down with a special bolt-action rifle, killing him with a single shot up to 1,000 yards away.
“It’s better to send a well-aimed bullet down than a 500-pound bomb,” said Lt. Col. Austin “Sparky” Renforth, who’s in charge of all Marine operations in Fallujah and has ordered airstrikes to bail out Marines suddenly pinned down by insurgent gunmen.
No dearth of targets
“We didn’t come for full-scale warfare. We brought soccer balls and Frisbees, wanted to make friends with these people. Once you drop a couple guys – call it information ops or psych ops – you get the message to the whole area.”
The snipers say they target only people with “hostile intent” and are given wide latitude to determine that. While an infantryman is under orders to fire only if a person is leveling a weapon, sharpshooters may fire at people whose behavior suggests they are part of the insurgency.
There’s no shortage of targets.
“Seems there’s more enemy here to me. Everyone was walking freely with AK-47s,” said Cpl. Oscar Reyes, comparing his assignment in Fallujah to one of a year ago, when he was posted near Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace in Baghdad, picking off enemies who came near U.S. forces.
That mission lasted three days. Already, Reyes has been in Fallujah 21 days and counts eight confirmed kills and another five probable kills in that time.
Assault still needed
Besides sharpshooting, the snipers have also called in airstrikes on mortar positions and used their long-range rifles to detonate a dead rebel with an explosive vest at a safe distance.
They don’t think their efforts will forestall the need eventually for the Marines to launch a full-scale assault. “These guys are bunkered down in their houses. You got to get them out of the house to do the job,” said 1st Lt. Timothy Murray, 26, of Aliso Viejo, Calif., who commands a scout-sniper platoon of 20.
Elchlinger is typical of members of the elite unit. Slightly older than the average infantryman, he started out hunting – elk – long before he found himself in Iraq.
But his team leader, Reyes, is 23, and a product of a big city, Los Angeles. He had never hunted before becoming a Marine.
Now, he said, “I’m a hunter of gunmen.”