MUQDADIYAH, Iraq—Sgt. Antonio Molina sat on a rooftop in the pitch of night, scanning the road before him with a high-powered sniper scope, hoping an insurgent would scramble out of a car to lay a bomb and give him a reason to squeeze the trigger.
He and three other 3rd Infantry Division snipers were dropped off last week at a house on the outskirts of Muqdadiyah, in an Iraqi province that military officials frequently claim is largely pacified. Dozens of infantry soldiers stormed the abandoned structure in a staged raid and left the four men behind. Alone with their rifles, they moved quietly, fearing that an insurgent ambush might catch and kill them before Bradley Fighting Vehicles could respond.
"Some people don't get the gravity of the situation here; people in the Green Zone are always trying to paint a rosy picture," said Molina, a 27-year-old sniper from Clearwater, Fla. He was referring to the fortified compound in Baghdad where U.S. officials work. "These politicians are all about sending people to war but they don't know what it's all about, being over here and getting shot at, walking through s--- swamps, having bombs go off, hearing bullets fly by. They have no idea what that's like."
Military commanders in Baghdad and Washington say four Iraqi provinces are home to 85 percent of the daily attacks. They claim that a relatively low attack rate in Iraq's 14 other provinces is proof that the insurgency is on its knees.
Muqdadiyah is in one of those 14 provinces, Diyala. Yet five days in the field with a 3rd Infantry Division sniper team suggests that, to those on the ground here, the insurgency is anything but defeated.
Many American troops on the ground in Muqdadiyah expect the violence to continue long after they're gone. They worry that Sunni Muslim insurgents—from a Sunni population that makes up 40 percent of Diyala—will simply move from targeting U.S. forces to ratcheting up attacks against Shiite Muslims, who compose 35 percent of the province. Shiites are a majority in Iraq, and they dominate the Baghdad government.
Muqdadiyah is a relative backwater of some 100,000 people. But the guerrilla war there, while gaining little attention, indicates wider instability than military leaders have acknowledged and could plague efforts to put the Iraqi government on its feet.
"As soon as we leave this place they're all going to kill each other," Molina said at a meeting in his barracks recently.
His sniper team commander, Staff Sgt. Donnie Hendricks, agreed: "It's going to be a f------ civil war."
Hendricks was quiet for a few moments.
"We go out and kill the bad guys one at a time," said Hendricks, 32, who speaks with the soft accent of his native Claremore, Okla., where his high school graduating class had 55 students. "But we're just whittling down one group so it's easier for the other groups to kill them."
Maj. Dean Wollan, the top U.S. intelligence officer in Diyala, said his men had made tremendous gains against the insurgency, but he worries that the fight will grind on for years.
"I think it's going to be a while," said Wollan, 38, of Missoula, Mont. "I think the shortest insurgency we've seen was the one the Brits fought in Malaysia. That was seven years."
Commanders for the 3rd Infantry Division in Diyala said the number of attacks there had dropped from about a dozen a day last year to seven. Roadside bombs, they said, have decreased by a third. The latter trend, though, hasn't held up this month. In September 2004 there were 72 roadside bombs detonated or found, but 106 this month.
"They say attacks are down. Well, no s---," Hendricks said. "We're not patrolling where the bad guys are."
U.S. patrols on a parallel road, Route Marie, ended in late May.
Pointing to Route Marie on a map on the wall of his barracks, Hendricks traced a 2-mile stretch of the road with his index finger.
"They kicked our a-- off this road," Hendricks said. "They hit us with so many IEDs we had to stop using it." He used the military's term for homemade bombs, "improvised explosive devices."
In September, the U.S. Army began using bulldozers in Muqdadiyah to discourage roadside bombs, tearing apart palm groves, fields and roadside stands in the areas near explosions that had targeted American convoys.
On the main supply route to the base on the edge of Muqdadiyah, Route Vanessa Roadside, explosives hit the military's bomb-detecting truck every day for 11 straight days in August. Commanders routinely call in F-16s to provide close support for the vehicle.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a military spokesman in Baghdad, pointed to Diyala and the 13 other provinces in September as examples of a weakened insurgency.
"So what I'm trying to show you is ... there is indeed areas of Iraq that are relatively safe and secure, and those people in those provinces are working their way towards a peaceful society as they work their way towards democracy," Lynch said, motioning to a map of Iraq. "Sixty percent of the people of Iraq live in these provinces that are experiencing a much, much, much lower level of violence, to the point where they're averaging less than one attack per day."
The U.S. military in Muqdadiyah has reduced patrols from 24-hour cycles to two daily five-hour rotations. And instead of canvassing the entire area, the patrols now concentrate almost exclusively on Route Vanessa, the main route in and out of the base. The insurgents shifted their attacks and now regularly place bombs along that road.
"The bad guys watch our gates. They know when we're out in sector. They just wait for us to leave and then they plant" the bombs, Hendricks said. "They plant them with impunity."
A roadside bomb hit Hendricks' vehicle in June. He has scars on his face and neck and a piece of shrapnel in his jaw.
Beyond U.S. patrols on the main supply route in Muqdadiyah, Iraqi police and army units are responsible for much of the city.
Sgt. Hunter Sabin has spent a fair amount of time near the Iraqi troops, and said that while they were getting better, they were still far from ready.
"I was up in a guard tower outside the FOB (base) and a group of IP (Iraqi police) came up and offered us hash and whiskey," said Sabin, a 26-year-old sniper from Richmond, Va., who was in a Ranger special operations unit during the 2003 invasion. "That's who's protecting the people."
Hendricks taught a sniper's training course to a select group of Iraqi soldiers, but stuck to marksmanship.
"I haven't taught them tactics because they're infiltrated," Hendricks said. "It's like going to a party where you don't know anybody, but somebody in the room—you don't know who—wants to kill you."
Hendricks and his men are career military. Four of the seven are sergeants, the backbone of the enlisted ranks.
Hendricks has spent eight of nine years in the military as a sniper, including five with the Army Rangers. Including his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, he's had nine confirmed kills and nine wounded.
"It takes nothing," he said with a half-grin. "I don't care about these people."
The snipers have formed their impressions of the war on enemy ground.
The team steals out of trucks on the back roads of Muqdadiyah late at night and dashes into the cover of palm groves, scrambling over fences, jumping across canals and flattening against the ground when car headlights sweep by.
They often sit in the same clearings that guerrilla fighters used days earlier to detonate roadside bombs. During a mission in a palm grove, the men pointed to empty cigarette cartons, water bottles and flattened stretches of grass as telltale signs that guerrillas were there recently.
"Haji will use a position. We go find it, stay there overnight, and we know they're watching us," Hendricks said, using the pejorative slang for Iraqis. "We have them in the palm groves with us ... we hear them talking but we can't find them."
Sitting in the darkness, near the edge of a palm grove, Molina looked at the street in front of him.
"The reason why they're fighting us is not Osama bin Laden. They're fighting us because we're here. ... They don't want us here. They just want us to leave. I guess that would be a victory for them," he said. "As far as I can see there's not going to be any victory for us."
Sabin, sitting next to him, nodded.
"In past situations you've had a good guy and a bad guy and the troops were impassioned, but now troops just want to go home," Sabin said. "I don't feel like there's a cause. I don't personally think there's a reason for this."
The two fell silent. Slowly, they went back to peering through their scopes, out at the darkness.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SNIPERS
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050929 SNIPERS rifle, 20050929 SNIPERS map