(AP) U.S. troops in Iraq may not have found weapons of mass destruction, but they’re certainly getting their hands on the country’s stock of Kalashnikovs — and, they say, they need them. The soldiers based around Baqouba are from an armor battalion, which means they have tanks, Humvees and armored personnel carriers. But they are short on rifles.
A four-man tank crew is issued two M4 assault rifles and four 9mm pistols, relying mostly on the tank’s firepower for protection.
But now they are engaged in guerrilla warfare, patrolling narrow roads and goat trails where tanks are less effective. Troops often find themselves dismounting to patrol in smaller vehicles, making rifles essential.
“We just do not have enough rifles to equip all of our soldiers. So in certain circumstances we allow soldiers to have an AK-47. They have to demonstrate some proficiency with the weapon … demonstrate an ability to use it,” said Lt. Col. Mark Young, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.
“Normally an armor battalion is fighting from its tanks. Well, we are not fighting from our tanks right now,” Young said. “We are certainly capable of performing the missions that we have been assigned, there’s no issue with that, but we do find ourselves somewhat challenged.”
In Humvees, on tanks — but never openly on base — U.S. soldiers are carrying the Cold War-era weapon, first developed in the Soviet Union but now mass produced around the world.
The AK is favored by many of the world’s fighters, from child soldiers in Africa to rebel movements around the world, because it is light, durable and known to jam less frequently.
Now U.S. troops who have picked up AKs on raids or confiscated them at checkpoints are putting the rifles to use — and they like what they see.
Some complain that standard U.S. military M16 and M4 rifles jam too easily in Iraq’s dusty environment. Many say the AK has better “knockdown” power and can kill with fewer shots.
“The kind of war we are in now … you want to be able to stop the enemy quick,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tracy S. McCarson of Newport News, Va., an army scout, who carries an AK in his Humvee.
Some troops say the AK is easier to maintain and a better close-quarters weapon. Also, it has “some psychological affect on the enemy when you fire back on them with their own weapons,” McCarson said.
Most U.S. soldiers agree the M16 and the M4 — a newer, shorter version of the M16 that has been used by American troops since the 1960s — is better for long distance, precision shooting.
But around Baqouba, troops are finding themselves attacked by assailants hidden deep in date palm groves. Or they are raiding houses, taking on enemies at close-quarters.
Two weeks ago, Sgt. Sam Bailey of Cedar Falls, Iowa, was in a Humvee when a patrol came under rocket-propelled grenade and heavy machine gun fire. It was dark, the road narrow. On one side, there was a mud wall and palms trees, on the other a canal surrounded by tall grass.
Bailey, who couldn’t see who was firing, had an AK-47 on his lap and his M4 up front. The choice was simple.
“I put the AK on auto and started spraying,” Bailey said.
Some soldiers also say it’s easier to get ammo for the AK — they can pick it up on any raid or from any confiscated weapon.
“It’s plentiful,” said Sgt. Eric Harmon, a tanker who has a full 75-round drum, five 30-round magazines, plus 200-300 rounds in boxes for his AK. He has about 120 rounds for his M16.
Young doesn’t carry an AK but has fired one. He’s considered banning his troops from carrying AKs, but hasn’t yet because “if I take the AK away from some of the soldiers, then they will not have a rifle to carry with them.”
Staff Sgt. Michael Perez, a tanker, said he would take anything over his standard issue 9mm pistol when he’s out of his tank.
And the AK’s durability has impressed him.
“They say you can probably drop this in the water and leave it overnight, pull it out in the morning, put in a magazine and it will work,” Perez said.