[Marxism] Iraqi snipers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 4 07:41:29 MST 2006

NY Times, November 4, 2006
Sniper Attacks Adding to Peril of U.S. Troops

KARMA, Iraq, Nov. 3 — The bullet passed through 
Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez-Castillo as his Marine 
patrol moved down a muddy urban lane. It was a 
single shot. The lance corporal fell against a 
wall, tried to stand and fell again.

His squad leader, Sgt. Jesse E. Leach, faced 
where the shot had come from, raised his rifle 
and grenade launcher and quickly stepped between 
the sniper and the bloodied marine. He walked 
backward, scanning, ready to fire.

Shielding the marine with his own thick body, he 
grabbed the corporal by a strap and dragged him 
across a muddy road to a line of tall reeds, 
where they were concealed. He put down his 
weapon, shouted orders and cut open the lance 
corporal’s uniform, exposing a bubbling wound.

Lance Corporal Valdez-Castillo, shot through the 
right arm and torso, was saved. But the patrol 
was temporarily stuck. The marines were engaged 
in the task of calling for a casualty evacuation 
while staring down their barrels at dozens of 
windows that faced them, as if waiting for a ghost’s next move.

This sequence on Tuesday here in Anbar Province 
captured in a matter of seconds an expanding 
threat in the war in Iraq. In recent months, 
military officers and enlisted marines say, the 
insurgents have been using snipers more 
frequently and with greater effect, disrupting 
the military’s operations and fueling a climate of frustration and quiet rage.

Across Iraq, the threat has become serious enough 
that in late October the military held an 
internal conference about it, sharing the 
experiences of combat troops and discussing 
tactics to counter it. There has been no ready fix.

The battalion commander of Sergeant Leach’s unit 
— the Second Battalion, Eighth Marines — recalled 
eight sniper hits on his marines in three months 
and said there had been other possible incidents 
as well. Two of the battalion’s five fatalities 
have come from snipers, he said, and one marine 
is in a coma. Another marine gravely wounded by a sniper has suffered a stroke.

A sniper team was captured in the area a few 
weeks ago, he said, but more have taken its 
place. “The enemy has the ability to regenerate, 
and after we put a dent in his activity, we see 
sniper activity again,” said the commander, Lt. Col. Kenneth M. DeTreux.

Marines in two infantry companies recounted more 
cases, telling of lone shots that zipped in as if 
from nowhere, striking turrets and walls within 
inches of marines. They typically occur when the 
marines are not engaged in combat. It is as if, 
they say, they are being watched.

By many measures, the Iraqi snipers have showed 
unexceptional marksmanship, usually shooting from 
within 300 yards, far less than ranges preferred 
by the elite snipers in Western military units.

But as the insurgent sniper teams have become 
more active, the marines here say, they have 
displayed greater skill, selecting their targets 
and their firing positions with care. They have 
also developed cunning methods of mobility and 
concealment, including firing from shooting 
platforms and hidden ports within cars.

They often use variants of the long-barreled 
Dragunov rifle, which shoots higher-powered 
ammunition than the much more common Kalashnikov 
assault rifles. Their marksmanship has improved 
to the point of being good enough.

“In the beginning of the war, sniping wasn’t 
something that the Iraqis did,” said Capt. Glen 
Taylor, the executive officer of the battalion’s 
Company G, who is on his third combat tour. “It 
was like, ‘If Allah wants that bullet to hit its 
target, it will.’ But they are starting to realize how effective it is.”

The insurgents are recruiting snipers and 
centralizing their instruction, the captain said, 
meaning that the phenomenon is likely to grow.

“They have training camps — they go around and 
advertise,” he said. “We heard from some of our 
sources that the insurgents were going around 
with loudspeakers, saying that if you want to be 
a sniper we will pay you three times whatever your salary is now.”

The marines also express their belief that the 
sniper teams have a network of spotters, and that 
each time the marines leave their outpost, 
spotters hidden among the Iraqi population call 
the snipers and tell them where the marines are 
and what they are doing. The snipers then arrive.

For the infantry, Iraq’s improved snipers have 
created confounding new dangers, as an unseen 
enemy plucks members from their ranks. Most of 
the time, the marines said, the snipers aim for 
their heads, necks and armpits, displaying 
knowledge of gaps in their protective gear. They 
typically shoot once and disappear. And they 
often fire on the opposite side of obstacles like 
canals, which limits a unit’s ability to capture 
the sniper or respond with fire.

“That’s the biggest thing that tears marines 
apart,” said Cpl. Curtis S. Cota-Robles of 
Company G, who was standing beside a marine who 
was shot through the collarbone in late 
September. “They hit us when we are vulnerable, and then they are gone.”

As part of their counterinsurgency operations, 
the marines working in Anbar are under orders to 
show restraint, a policy rooted in hopes of 
winning the trust of the civilian population.

Iraqi snipers seem to know these rules and use 
them for their own protection. They often fire 
from among civilians, the marines say, having 
observed that unless the marines have a clear 
target, they will not shoot. In two sniper 
shootings witnessed by two journalists for The 
New York Times, on Oct. 30 and 31, the snipers 
fired from among civilians. The marines did not fire back.

In conditions where killing the snipers has 
proved difficult, the marines have tried to find 
ways to limit their effectiveness. Signs inside 
Marine positions display an often-spoken rule: “Make yourself hard to kill.”

Many marines, on operations, do an understated 
dance they call “cutting squares.” It is not really a square at all.

They zig and zag as they walk, and when they stop 
they shift weight from foot to foot, bobbing 
their heads. They change the rhythm often, so 
that when a sniper who might be watching them 
thinks they are about to zig, they have zagged.

Now and then they squat, shift weight to one leg 
and stand up beside the place where they had just 
been. Maj. Sean Riordan, the battalion executive 
officer, described his own unpredictable jigs as “my little salsa dance.”

As they move, the marines often peer down their 
own scopes, looking at windows, rooftops, lines 
of brush. Then they might step backward, or 
forward, or duck, as if saying: try to shoot that.

But as operations drag on, some marines begin to 
stop cutting squares. And sometimes even those 
that are moving are still shot. And there are special dangers.

Lance Cpl. Colin Smith, who was shot on Monday, 
was behind a machine gun in a vehicle turret, a 
position that placed him higher in the air than a 
walking marine. Turret gunners are protected by 
armor shields, but their heads are often exposed. 
He was struck in the skull. He survived but fell 
into a coma and was placed on life support.

Lance Corporal Valdez-Castillo, who was shot on 
Tuesday, was a radio operator — a preferred 
sniper’s target since radios and rifles first 
mixed on the battlefield many decades ago. A 
tactical radio can provide a link to mortars, 
artillery, air support and other infantry units.

Ten marines, several soldiers from the nascent 
Iraqi Army and two journalists were walking 
exposed in a column when the shot was fired and 
he went down; his antenna probably made him the 
sniper’s pick. Lance Corporal Valdez-Castillo has 
been flown to a military hospital in Landstuhl, 
Germany. He is in good condition and has spoken to his unit.

In both cases the sniper fired from the other 
side of a canal, among civilians and a group of 
buildings. The advantages were his.

Seeing the risks, the commanders have been 
shifting tactics to reduce the marines’ 
vulnerability while still trying to keep them out 
on the streets, interacting with Iraqis and 
searching for insurgents and arms caches.

Some units have limited their foot patrols by 
day, finding them to be too dangerous. They still 
enter neighborhoods in armored vehicles and 
dismount, but often quickly step into buildings to interview people inside.

They continue to patrol on foot at night, because 
the Iraqi snipers have not yet shown the 
sophistication to fire with precision in the 
dark, and the marines’ night vision equipment and 
weapons sights give them the upper hand.

They also cover most of their vital organs with 
protective armor plates, which have saved several 
of them when the Iraqi snipers have fired.

One marine, Gunnery Sgt. Shawn M. Dempsey of 
Weapons Company, was shot in the back as he 
helped a small girl across a street. The plate 
saved him. He remains on duty as a platoon commander.

Another, Lance Cpl. Edward Knuth of Company G, 
was hit as his squad searched a watermelon market 
beside a main road. No one in his squad heard the 
shot, which he said was probably made from a 
vehicle parked on the highway. All they heard was 
the impact of the bullet on his plate.

“It was like a smacking sound,” he said.

The force of the impact, like being struck with a 
baseball bat, knocked him to his knees. A marine 
swiftly dragged him to cover. Then his squad 
rushed the line of cars. They found nothing. The sniper had escaped.

“They’re good,” Lance Corporal Knuth said, 
showing a crumbling, coin-sized hole in his armor 
where the bullet stopped. “They take their time. 
They’re patient. They only take one shot most of 
the time, and they are hard to find.”

After Lance Corporal Valdez-Castillo was shot and 
evacuated, a sweat-soaked, bloodied Sergeant 
Leach led his team through the rest of his 
patrol. When the marines re-entered the wire, an angry debriefing began.

Move quickly through the open areas, the 
noncommissioned officers told the troops. Don’t 
stand high on the berms. Camouflage the radios. 
Keep your eyes out and rifles ready.

Little was said about how to kill the sniper; the 
marines did not know where he was. They passed 
cigarettes and smoked them in the sun, and fumed.

“I’ll carry the radio next time,” said Lance Cpl. 
Peter Sprague. “I don’t have any kids.”

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