Wednesday, November 22, 2006

U.S. Marine Snipers in Iraq Running Out of Targets

This morning's New York Times has an interesting peice on the issues facing U.S. Marine Corps snipers in Iraq:

More than three years after the insurgency erupted across much of Iraq, sniping — one of the methods that the military thought would be essential in its counterinsurgency operations — is proving less successful in many areas of Iraq than had been hoped, Marine officers, trainers and snipers say.

In theory, Western snipers are a nearly perfect method of killing Iraq’s insurgents and thwarting their attacks, all with little risk of damaging property or endangering passers-by. But in practice, the snipers say, they are seeing fewer clear targets than previously, and are shooting fewer insurgents than expected.

In 2003, one Marine sniper killed 32 combatants in 12 days, the snipers say, and many others had double-digit kill totals during tours in Iraq. By this summer, sniper platoons with several teams had typically been killing about a dozen insurgents in seven-month tours, with totals per platoon ranging from 3 to as high as 26.

The gap between the expectations and the results has many causes, but is in part a reflection of the insurgency’s duration. With the war in its fourth year, many of the best sniping positions are already well known to the insurgents, and veteran insurgents have become more savvy and harder to kill.

In some areas of Iraq, where the insurgents are less experienced or still fight frontally, snipers have had better rates of success, including the platoon with 26 kills. But many areas, the snipers say, have become maddening places in which to hide and hunt.

“A lot of Marine battalions have rotated through these same areas for six or seven months at a time,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher D. Jones, the platoon sergeant of the Scout Sniper Platoon in the Second Battalion, Eighth Marines. “But the insurgents live here. They know almost all the best places that have been used. Before we even get here, they know where we are going to go.”

Moreover, the insurgents have developed safeguards, using shepherds and children to look for snipers in buildings and heavily overgrown areas, and networks of informants to spread the word when a sniper team has taken up a new position. “These days we’re lucky if we can go 12 hours without getting compromised,” he said.
The article notes that snipers units are elite groups, drawn from the larger infantry and forming a culture within a culture. But early in the Iraq counterinsurgency campaign a couple of sniper teams were lost after being discovered by the insurgents and executed. Military commanders have since been hesitant to deploy small teams for fear that they'll be overwhelmed, and now the snipers are feeling frustration at tough rules of engagement that limit their opportunities to kill the enemy:

The losses have made commanders hesitant to send out small teams, Marine officers said, a decision that many snipers said inhibits their work.

Snipers argue a counterintuitive point, saying that even though two-man teams have less firepower and fewer men, they are safer because they can hide more effectively.

Sgt. Joseph W. Chamblin, the leader of the battalion’s First Sniper Team, said the sniper community was suffering from an overreaction. “It’s sad that they got killed, but when you think about it, we’ve been here three years, going on four, and we’ve only had two teams killed,” he said. “That’s not that dramatic.”

Sergeant Chamblin killed for the first time on Nov. 10, shooting an insurgent who was putting a makeshift bomb beside a bridge near Saqlawiya, near Falluja, a spot where a similar bomb killed three marines and a translator this summer.

He said snipers were willing to assume the risk of traveling in pairs. “It’s a war,” he said. “People are going to die, and the American public needs to get over that. They need to get over that and let us do our job.”

Snipers also say that other force-protection issues are limiting their operations, including requirements to wear helmets and flak jackets, which slow snipers down and make hiding more difficult....

The military has also tightened rules of engagement as the war has progressed, toughening the requirements before a sniper may shoot an Iraqi. Potential targets must be engaged in a hostile act, or show clear hostile intent.

The marines say insurgents know the rules, and now rarely carry weapons in the open. Instead, they pose as civilians and keep their weapons concealed in cars or buildings until just before they need them. Later, when they are done shooting, they put them swiftly out of sight and mingle with civilians.

With almost no Iraqi police officers available in Anbar Province to check loiterers and suspicious cars, the snipers said, the insurgents have moved freely, making it difficult to tell from afar which people are dangerous, even when they have been violating the law.

Although the teams are frustrated, Lt. Col. Kenneth M. DeTreux, the battalion’s commander, said they still influenced the insurgents, who tend to avoid areas that are watched. The presence of snipers can keep a road free of bombs, he said.

“Our scout sniper teams have a deterrent effect,” he said. “That’s not wishful thinking. The insurgents fear our snipers.”

Still, the snipers want to thin the insurgents’ ranks, not just deter them. Some of their difficulties were evident on the roof on a recent day, when the battalion’s Fourth Sniper Team sat, watching through holes in the wall.
I really admire these guys. Sergeant Chamblin's quote above points to the selfless valor U.S. servicemen have demonstrated in the history of America's wars. I'm reminded of Private Jackson in "Saving Private Ryan," whose faith helped him clear the battlefield of enemy Germans:

Bleesen be the Lord that teaches my hands for the war, and my fingers to fight [fires rifle]....My strength, my high tower, and my deliverer [fires rifle]....My shield, and he in whom I trust [fires rifle]....Here we go baby.
Jackson is played by Barry Pepper in the film. I'm always moved during the final battle scene when Jackson, while taking out probably a dozen or so German soldiers, is killed when a enemy tank trains its sights on Jackson's position in the watchtower.

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