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QARGHULI VILLAGE, Iraq

The sniper has come close.

Roaming the green farms and lush groves around Qarghuli village, roughly 30 miles southwest of Baghdad, the shooter has in the past four months whizzed a bullet behind the head of a gunner crouched in a Humvee turret, struck a sergeant in the chest plates of his armor and miraculously passed a round through the goggles and helmet of another soldier without causing serious injury.

As far as U.S. military officials in the area are aware, the sniper has yet to kill anyone. But he has, nonetheless, proven himself dangerous.

“He has not been effective,” said 1st Lt. Greg Cartier, of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. “But he has had some impressive shots.”

Cartier’s unit, the Polar Bears out of Fort Drum in upstate New York, are stationed in the area at a small outpost dubbed Inchon and have been targeted by the sniper.

In the early morning hours Wednesday, the unit struck back.

The Polar Bears have been aggressively canvassing the area, looking for leads and collecting detainees for questioning. The sniper was in the area, U.S. forces were told. A pre-dawn convoy was assembled to pay him an unannounced visit.

U.S. military officials would not release the sniper’s name but they said they believe the man, in his late 20s or early 30s, is from the village of roughly 300 inhabitants. Witnesses have told U.S. forces that the shooter has been seen walking the countryside carrying a weapon with a short magazine and a scope.

His family, U.S. investigators believe, own several shops and tend the fields; the sniper was likely a farmer himself before taking up arms.

There are several ways he could have developed his skill with a rifle, U.S. forces said. The area around Qarghuli is dotted with lavish homes of the former ruling elite of Saddam Hussein’s regime. A former member of Saddam’s army may have taken the shooter under his wing and showed him how to stay out of sight. There are also manuals and television programs that provide instruction, U.S. officers said, for those who choose to train themselves. Shooters hone their skills with pellet guns before equipping themselves with deadly weapons.

At first blush, Patrol Base Inchon may seem like an enticing target for insurgents. It is a good example of the smaller, forward-flung outposts called for under the recently implemented counterinsurgency plan, though the base predates the new tactic by several months. Inchon is closer to the Iraqi population and also closer to the fight.

“That’s pretty much the way it is here,” Cartier said. “It comes hard.”

But an attack against the base usually meets with a swift response, soldiers said. The small outpost allows for greater speed and flexibility.

“There’s more freedom in moving forces around,” Cartier said.

The soldiers at the base also have gotten to know their area of operations well and notice the tell-tale signs of any changes, however subtle, to the daily routine of the village, they said.

“We see the same people every day,” Cartier said.

In the pre-dawn darkness Wednesday, a convoy of soldiers wrapped around a crumbling two-story house in the village, where they hoped to corner the sniper.

Soldiers entered the house and isolated three men from a group of women on the first floor. The detained men were the brothers and father of the sniper, soldiers said. His wife was also among the women. She had slept alone that evening she told soldiers, her husband, who comes and goes at days at a time, was not there.

The sniper and his weapon were not found. The soldiers took the detained men for further questioning.

Typically, when men are led away for questioning, any women relatives present will protest with tears and shouts, soldiers said. Not on this evening. The women watched silently as the brothers and father of the sniper were led away.

“They knew this was coming,” one soldier said.

The sniper was nowhere to be found Wednesday, but the Polar Bears expect him to make his presence known soon.

“We have his family here and we have some leads,” Cartier said. “Hopefully, we can be at the right place at the right time soon.”

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