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The eye in the sky


November 14, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- If the eye in the sky doesn't kill Fallujah's last surviving, last fighting insurgents, Lucille and her like probably will.

The eye is a video camera attached to a drone that flies over the city, providing artillery and aircraft with almost instantaneous targeting information. Lucille is the name sniper Sgt. Marc Veen has given to his M-14 rifle.

"From the movie 'Cool Hand Luke,' when the girl's washing the car. She's called Lucille," explained Veen, 24, of Chicago. "It's a good movie and that's the best part."

Yesterday, these two weapons in the U.S. military's multi-faceted arsenal were employed against what Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski called "pockets of resistance." The bulk of the fighting may be over in Fallujah but it could take days to make the city calm enough for residents who fled to return, commanders said. Reconstruction efforts in the devastated city will begin soon, they said; but in the meantime, technology and human skill are combining to kill every remaining insurgent as they race from house to house, trying to avoid what now seems the inevitable fate of everyone who refuses to surrender.

"We're going back and forth," said Natonski, the commander of all ground forces in Fallujah. He stood in one of the main streets of the city, visiting troops and senior officers. "They are moving. They're not staying still so that we can kill them."

With what appears to be the last group of surviving fighters concentrated in the south of the city, surrounded on all sides by American troops, both moving and staying still can prove fatal.

Yesterday morning, there was excitement in the command tent of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Regiment, which is located on the site of a decrepit plaster factory on the northern outskirts of the city.

The spotters who sit gazing at a laptop screen 24 hours a day had seen a group of about 40 men, some with weapons, collecting in a building in the south of the city. The jets were now almost within range. The heavy artillery guns had the coordinates.

More than a dozen men craned for a view of the screen, across tables covered in maps and secure telephones, waiting for the silent eruption of smoke that would mean there were /a whole lot less. Nothing happened.

"Are they dropping it or not?" asked the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Jim Rainey, to no one in particular.

Another soldier sat at another laptop typing messages back and forth in a secure chat room with a Marine targeter, who was most closely coordinating the strike.

"He said, 'Red tape. I'll explain later,'" the soldier said to the crowd, without taking his eyes off his screen.

The crowd grew impatient. Everyone had jobs to do.

"Damn it," said Maj. Scott Jackson, the battalion's executive officer, walking away.

Some time later, the red tape was cleared. Simultaneously, jets that had flown from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or perhaps a base in Turkey released their guided bombs while ground-based artillery guns unleashed huge shells into the blue sky.

The house on the screen disappeared in a massive cloud of smoke.

From the rubble, a handful of men staggered out and ran away into nearby houses.

That just allowed the spotters to see where they had moved on to.

"The rats are trying to scurry about," said Maj. Tim Karcher, operations officer for the 2nd Battalion.

Later in the morning, the same system delivered a similar blow to a house where about 15 men had hidden. After that blast, about 10 men rushed from a house next door.

Military tactics When they're on the streets they are met by tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, helicopters, infantrymen and snipers like Veen.

Yesterday afternoon at about 2 p.m., Veen sat on a white plastic chair on the roof of a house in southern Fallujah that Comanche company of the 2nd Battalion had temporarily occupied. Exhausted soldiers lay on foam mattresses in several rooms, some sleeping, some quietly talking or eating Army rations, known as meals- ready-to-eat.

It was Sunday, usually a time for rest and for many a time for worship.

On the roof, it was a time for killing.

"Hear my words, O Lord," one sniper had painted on the butt of his M-14, a sniper rifle popular in the Vietnam war and still very good at its intended purpose.

Veen hadn't painted anything on his, other than desert camouflage patterns, but he held it between his knees possessively. Like most snipers, he kept some empty bullet casings strapped to his flak jacket. There were four of them. One for each insurgent he had killed.

The latest casing, his first in Fallujah, had been added two hours earlier.

"He just stayed out in the open too long," said Veen, who spent five weeks at sniper school to hone his skills.

Taking aim The insurgent had been popping out from behind a corner about 500 yards away from the house that Veen and the other soldiers were in. The man wore black. He had a short-sleeved shirt, a mustache and was in his late 20s or early 30s, Veen guessed. He fired some rounds from his Kalashnikov rifle at the soldiers in the house and then ducked back behind the wall.

Veen kept his eye about three inches from his telescopic sight, lined up the black cross in the center of the lens with the man's torso and squeezed the trigger.

"I put him in the gut and he lay down," Veen said. That didn't finish the insurgent off. The second shot he fired slammed into the man's shoulder. To kill him, he fired a larger, exploding shell at the wall above the man. He did not move again.

Veen slid one of the casings into his flak.

Soon after that, some of the spotters on the roof noticed the man's body being dragged by unseen figures back behind the wall.

Veen was asked what it's like to kill a man so deliberately.

"The more we get done, clean up the streets, the sooner we go home," he said.

That didn't quite answer the question.

"Pretty much there's no feeling," he said, when asked again.

After he shot dead three insurgents in the battle of Najaf in August, he told his wife about it on the phone. He said she reacted fine, mainly wanted to know how he was doing.

Spiritual health Checking on how soldiers like Veen are doing, tending to the spirits of young men who have to go through things most people never have to deal with as long as they live, is Capt. Jonathan Fowler's job. He's the battalion's chaplain. And yesterday, after walking around the resting troops, he held a short Sunday service in the dirty, battered kitchen of the house. Amid the killing, some talk of love.

A dozen soldiers gathered round Fowler, a man who seems to remember every soldier's name without hesitation. He will often grab a soldier's hand and put his hand on their shoulder, calling them "my friend."

He asked the gathered troops for prayer requests.

"Families back home," one said.

There was a pause.

"Fellow warriors?" prompted Fowler.

"Guys that have been hurt," came a voice.

"Anything else?"

"Sgt. Shields' family," someone said, referring to a soldier killed last week when a tank crushed him.

"Everyone fighting here," someone else said.

Once all the requests were in, Fowler prayed for them, holding his left hand in the air.

"Watch over them, shroud them in your love," he asked his God.

He then read Philippians 4:13 from his camouflaged Bible: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

After the final "Amen," Sgt. Coy Embry, 24, from Norman, Okla., stood quietly at the side.

"It gives the guys a chance to maybe get away," he said, of the prayer service. "Gets their minds off the killing and brutality of war to what's more important in life, family back home and getting home."
Copyright ? 2004, Newsday, Inc.
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