June 11th, 2007 05:11 EST
The New Face of the War in Iraq
A handful of U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter move out at dusk into the streets of this dusty, garbage-strewn village, looking for the sniper who killed one of their comrades three months ago and has continued to take potshots at them ever since.
It's been six days since the sniper was last active, but soldiers with Troop C, 6th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, are sure he's out there somewhere, waiting.
So, they take up positions atop the flat roof of an Iraqi house, just 50 meters from a milky green canal flanked by tall, lush grass on either side. Using rifle scopes and binoculars, they scan a handful of two-story mud-brick houses about 250 meters away, across the canal.
The troopers stay past dark before returning to Patrol Base K-Wal, a combat outpost on the outskirts of Shakarat in the heart of Iraq's volatile Diyala province. The sniper's rendezvous with death will have to wait until another evening.
As they leave, a man, his wife, an old woman, two teenage girls and a couple of small children are huddled in the courtyard below. The interpreter thanks the family for allowing the troops to use the roof. The adults smile, nod their heads, and wish the soldiers well as they leave.
"One of the hardest things is that you've got a lot of nice kids and a lot of nice families around here," 1st Lt. Anthony Von Plinksy, a 28-year-old scout platoon leader from Columbia, S.C., said earlier, before heading out on the mission.
"But the thing is you never know if they're the ones who are turning around later and taking a shot at you."
As U.S. commanders implement President Bush's six-month-old "surge" strategy, such encounters have become the new face of the war in Iraq. By pulling U.S. forces off big bases and pushing them to smaller outposts, the goal is to secure the Iraqi populace and drive a wedge between them and insurgents.
For the 70 or so soldiers of Troop C, the new approach means pulling 15- to 21-day stints at a three-story brick house on the edge of town that's since been surrounded by Hesco barriers, concrete blast walls and concertina wire. A huge tan nylon net provides some relief from the scorching sun but, more importantly, it shields the troops inside from snipers.
Stemming the infiltration
Since Troop C moved into K-Wal in March, engagements with the enemy have been small in scale: snipers, rockets, mortars, roadside bombs, a grenade hidden in the tool pouch of a bicycle ridden by a teenage Iraqi boy.
Casualties have been relatively light. A sniper killed one soldier on March 14. The outpost was later named in his memory. A roadside bomb last week took the life of another. Seven other soldiers have been wounded.
The troopers say they've accomplished their primary mission since they arrived in Shakarat. The canal bridge once served as a primary conduit for insurgents who would slip in, terrorize local residents and use the village as a staging area for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi army traffic on the nearby highway.
The infiltration has mostly stopped, and market stalls in Shakarat have largely reopened, a sign of confidence the local populace has in their presence, the U.S. soldiers say.
Still, insurgents are constantly probing for weaknesses in the soldiers' defenses.
"When we first got out here, we were taking sniper fire almost every day," said 2nd Lt. John Barrington, 23, a mortar platoon leader from Crowley, Texas. "But now, that's pretty much quieted down. Now, itâ€™s just mortars mostly."
Early Wednesday, insurgents fired two Katyusha rockets, but they fell wide of their likely target, a Bradley parked near the canal bridge.
Later, a U.S. soldier at a checkpoint found a hand grenade in the tool bag of a bicycle. The teenage boy riding the bike claimed that it wasn't his and that someone else must have put it there. The troopers had little choice but to let the boy go; possession of a hand grenade is not enough to get a conviction for insurgent activities in an Iraqi court, they say.
Varying the routine
As the insurgents probe, so do U.S. forces. To keep the insurgents off-balance, the troopers try to never establish patterns, varying the times they go on patrol, the routes they take, the areas they visit and the number of troops they take on a mission.
"A static defense is going to get you killed," Von Plinsky said.
Recently, one insurgent was killed while filming an attack with a video camera. But they still haven't been run completely out of the area.
"It's just like any other hunting trip," said Staff Sgt. Craig Charloux, 39, of Bangor, Maine. "Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't."
Shortly after moving into K-Wal, Troop C started feeding and taking care of a mule that hung around the base. The soldiers took to calling the donkey "Das Mule." The donkey took to following U.S. forces out on patrol. Then one day, the donkey disappeared.
"Word got on the streets that he was our donkey," said Spc. Josiah Hollopeter, 27, of Valentine, Neb. "The insurgents assassinated him. That really irritated me."
Used with permission from Stars and Stripes. C 2007 Stars and Stripes. http://www.stripes.com