The Habbaniyah engagement was a limited but significant milestone in this unnoticed war-within-a-war, a quiet triumph of skill and courage, strategy and technology, which yielded a victory as great as that of British snipers who wrested domination of the World War I trenches from Germany’s snipers in 1915.
An Asymmetrical Conflict
Iraqi military snipers appeared occasionally during the 2003 invasion, but afterward—like the rest of their army—they shed their uniforms and faded away. By the end of that year, some Saddam loyalists and a few al-Qaeda terrorists sometimes sniped at American troops but not in a coordinated way. The following year, however, attacks increased while insurgents concentrated by the thousands in Fallujah, daring the U.S. military to attack their enclave. That November, U.S. Marines and soldiers assaulted Fallujah, teaching a bloody lesson: directly fighting America’s military meant inevitable and total defeat. Thus, al-Qaeda and its allies turned away from direct confrontation to “asymmetric,” or disproportionate, warfare to inflict casualties at low risk. This new strategy involved car bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), along with snipers in considerable numbers.
The terrorist snipers’ tactics proved as extreme as their philosophy. Unencumbered by international law, insurgent snipers hid themselves in civilian clothes, took cover behind human shields, fired from mosques and escaped in ambulances. With a seemingly endless supply of sniper rifles and thousands of American targets, these hit-and-run terrorists could strike anywhere. American quick-reaction forces rushed to such scenes, but most often the enemy snipers simply dumped their rifles and blended into the neighborhood. They seemed nearly impossible to kill or capture.
U.S. Sniping Successes
While insurgent sniper attacks grew, U.S. Army and Marine snipers were proving their own against the insurgents. Marine Sgt. Joshua Clark and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeff Pursley, for example, observed two vehicles halt at night to plant a bomb inside a junked car. While the insurgents unrolled detonation wires, the American snipers crept forward and fired, forcing several insurgents to flee, capturing one.
U.S. Army snipers from the 3rd Infantry Division’s “Shadow Team” sniper detachment, led by Staff Sgt. Jim Gilliland, hid for 18 hours near Ramadi to stop IED-planters in a similar fashion, firing just three shots to down three terrorists.
Another sniper team led by Marine Staff Sgt. Steve Reichert spotted a dead animal just ahead of a Marine patrol, with wires running from its carcass. After alerting his fellow Marines, Reichert turned his .50 BMG Barrett rifle toward an insurgent machine gunner, striking him down at 1,775 yards—more than a full mile.
In another incident, a Marine sniper rushed to the aid of Marines taking fire from an insurgent concealed behind an automobile. The American sniper fired his heavy Barrett .50-cal. completely through the parked automobile, killing the terrorist.
In Fallujah, Marine Sgt. John Ethan Place demonstrated skill and technique on par with the best snipers in Marine history. The 22-year-old sniper scored 32 confirmed kills in only 13 days and was awarded the Silver Star.
Sgt. Herbert Hancock, chief scout-sniper with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment and a full-time Texas SWAT police sniper, and his teammate, Cpl. Geoffrey Flowers, spotted two black-robed insurgents manning a 120 mm mortar. Hancock laid his crosshair on one man, dropped him, then ran his bolt and got the second, too. The distance: an impressive 1,050 yards. An even farther long-range shot was fired by Marine Cpl. Matt Orth, who took out a terrorist 1,256 yards away.