FALLUJAH, Iraq—U.S. Marines awaiting orders to attack here are using a not-so-secret weapon to winnow down enemy fighters that commanders consider more effective than a 500-pound bomb: Sniper teams that target anyone suspected of being an insurgent.
In the past three weeks, two sniper teams attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment have shot down 90 people who have strayed into their sights. The two teams are part of the 100 Marine sharpshooters deployed by three battalions around the city. One sniper secreted away in another corner of Fallujah has "26 confirmed kills," military officers here report.
"Every time we get to kill somebody, he is no longer shooting at the Marines," said Sgt. Dennis Elchlinger, 31, of Encampment, Wyo., who is one of only 500 scout-snipers in the Marine Corps.
Elchlinger admits he doesn't really know whether his team's victims are foreign fighters or local citizens brandishing weapons in a bid to drive out the American occupiers.
"They don't wear a uniform," Elchlinger said. "It's hard to tell the nationality of someone with a towel on his face."
The role of the snipers here has been a stealthy one amid a cease-fire that U.S. officials say has been repeatedly broken by Arab insurgents. The snipers were deployed in early April, as guerrilla ambushes claimed more than 50 Marine lives in the bloodiest fighting since U.S. troops entered Iraq last year. Not since the Vietnam War have American forces deployed so many sharpshooters.
Day and night, the sniper teams stalk their prey, well beyond the bases from which Marines control about a quarter of the city. From rooftops, in fields and around alleyways, the sharpshooters are an offensive force—at a time when most Marines are under orders to fire only when attacked.
A sniper team consists of four men, each of whom carries a sniper rifle, an M16 and a pistol, as well as extra ammo and a host of other equipment. They set up sniper nests from which they track suspected enemy fighters with special long-range scopes, thermal imaging devices and computerized equipment. If the team agrees a person has "hostile intent"—such as carrying a weapon or rocket-propelled grenade—a designated sharpshooter cuts him down with a special bolt-action rifle, killing him with a single shot up to 1,000 yards away.
"They've become the enemy's worst nightmare. We have something they can't counter," boasts Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, the 1st Battalion's commander.
"It's better to send a well-aimed bullet down than a 500-pound bomb," said Lt. Col. Austin "Sparky" Renforth, who's in charge of all Marine operations in Fallujah and has ordered airstrikes to bail out Marines suddenly pinned down by insurgent gunmen.
"We didn't come for full-scale warfare. We brought soccer balls and Frisbees, wanted to make friends with these people. Once you drop a couple guys—call it information ops or psych ops—you get the message to the whole area."
In fact, commanders boast that in on-again, off-again negotiations with Fallujah's civic leaders, the Arabs asked first that the Marines withdraw their snipers. Refugees fleeing Fallujah complained that the sharpshooters target civilians.
The snipers say they target only people with "hostile intent" and are given wide latitude to determine that. While an infantryman is under orders to fire only if a person is leveling a weapon, sharpshooters may fire at people whose behavior suggests they are part of the insurgency.
There's no shortage of targets.
"Seems there's more enemy here to me. Everyone was walking freely with AK-47s," said Cpl. Oscar Reyes, comparing his assignment in Fallujah to one of a year ago, when he was posted near Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace in Baghdad, picking off enemies who came near U.S. forces.
That mission lasted three days. Already, Reyes has been in Fallujah 21 days and counts eight confirmed kills and another five probable kills in that time.
Besides sharpshooting, the snipers have also called in airstrikes on mortar positions and used their long-range rifles to detonate a dead rebel with an explosive vest at a safe distance.
They don't think their efforts will forestall the need eventually for the Marines to launch a full-scale assault. "These guys are bunkered down in their houses. You got to get them out of the house to do the job," said 1st Lt. Timothy Murray, 26, of Aliso Viejo, Calif., who commands a scout-sniper platoon of 20.
Elchlinger is typical of members of the elite unit. Slightly older than the average infantryman, he started out hunting—elk—long before he found himself in Iraq.
But his team leader, Reyes, is 23, and a product of a big city, Los Angeles. He had never hunted before becoming a Marine.
Now, he said, "I'm a hunter of gunmen."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.