Facebook Twitter

U.S. snipers less effective than hoped in Iraq war

Sniping positions become well known to insurgent groups

SHARE U.S. snipers less effective than hoped in Iraq war

KARMA, Iraq — The sniper team left friendly lines hours ahead of the sun. They were a group of U.S. Marines walking through the chill, hoping to be in hiding before the mullahs' pre-dawn call to prayer would urge this city awake.

They reached an abandoned building. Two Marines stepped inside, swept the ground floor and signaled to the others to follow them to the flat roof, where they crawled to spots along its walls where they had previously chiseled out small viewing holes.

Out came their gear: a map, spotting scopes, binoculars, two-way radios and stools. The snipers took their places, peering through the holes, watching an Iraqi neighborhood from which insurgents often fire. They were hoping an insurgent would try to fire on this day. The waiting began.

If the recent pattern was any indication, the waiting could last a long time. This was this sniper team's 30th mission in Anbar province since early August. They had yet to fire a shot.

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, U.S. Marine officers, trainers and snipers say.

In theory, 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 before 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 three to as many 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 the 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 2nd Battalion, 8th 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 vegetated 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," Jones said.

In the Marine Corps, snipers have long been a culture within the culture, a group of quiet, highly competent infantrymen selected for their field skills, self-discipline and shooting expertise.

Picked from the ranks, they are trained at a 10-week school that develops their skills in hiding, stalking and long-range marksmanship. Each infantry battalion has a platoon of snipers, who typically work in small teams apart from the rifle companies. They are considered elite.

But some snipers now worry that the difficulties they face have been compounded by rules and conditions placed on them by senior military leaders.

Marine snipers have customarily trained to work in two-man teams who hide and stalk for days, seeking targets a half-mile or more away. Often an area might be saturated with the snipers, so they can support and protect one another while confusing an enemy force with different angles of fire.

This way, according to their thinking, they can kill more enemy combatants, and sow more fear.

Those two-man teams are not allowed in Iraq, in part because of the killings of two groups of snipers earlier in the war.

In the first episode, in 2004 in Ramadi, four Marine snipers were killed without firing a shot, apparently after being surprised in a shooting position in an urban area, known in sniper jargon as a "hide." An investigation suggested that they had been overwhelmed and executed.

In 2005 a six-man sniper team from a Marine reserve unit was killed in Haditha. The insurgents videotaped a display of the slain team's equipment, including a Marine's dog tags, and circulated the spectacle on the Internet.

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 1st Sniper Team, said the sniper community is 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."

Chamblin killed for the first time on Nov. 10, shooting an insurgent who was putting a makeshift bomb beside a bridge near Saqlawiya, near Fallujah, 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.

"You go to a 10-week sniper course and never in that course are you in Kevlar and a helmet," Jones said. "Then you come to Iraq and immediately you're in your flak jacket and helmet and you've got a huge pack of gear."

Chamblin agreed. "We are carrying way more stuff than we can be tactically sound with," he said. "My arms are numb because my pack is so heavy. Sometimes, on my missions, my pack has weighed more than I have, and I weigh 150 pounds."

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 that 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 influence 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 4th Sniper Team sat, watching through holes in the wall.

Karma is a scene of frequent violence, and below them was a favored insurgent area. Once during the day they thought they had been spotted, and three marines swept the building below to make sure they were safe. They were.

They returned to watching through the holes. Other holes could be seen in buildings nearby — previous sniper positions, and a sign that insurgents probably knew the area is often watched.

"I've got a shady-looking guy," Lance Cpl. Nathan D. Leach, the assistant team leader, said as he observed a suspicious man. "He's got his hand behind him. Looks like he's got something under his shirt."

"You see where that guy went?" asked Lance Cpl. Keeghan O'Brien, the radio operator.

"No, he walked behind a building and disappeared," said Cpl. Jason A. Dufault, the team leader.

A few hours later, several shots were heard from the neighborhood, and rifle-launched grenades sailed through the air. They landed behind the snipers, near a platoon-sized Marine position, exploding with a series of thunderous cracks.

The snipers peered around, seeking a shot. Another sniper team was also in the area, watching over the Marine position, too. No one saw a thing.

The insurgents were within a few hundred yards, but had found a seam. Several hours later, in the blackness again, the team picked up and moved, still waiting for a target after more than three months in Iraq.