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Army pilots learn lessons in urban combat
NAJAF, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's face on a sign outside an amusement park made a perfect target for Lt. Col. Stephen Schiller. The Army helicopter pilot fired a rocket through it, then blasted military equipment hidden inside the park in Najaf.
"We didn't hit any of the rides," Schiller boasted on Wednesday.
Since Sunday, Schiller, commander of the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment of the 101st Aviation Brigade, and his team of 24 aviators have taken out targets in Najaf ranging from a truck full of missiles to a motorcycle with a sidecar.
Their experience learning the tricks the Iraqis use to hide their men and materiel could prove valuable as the U.S. military moves into densely populated Baghdad.
U.S. forces who reach the Iraqi capital could face hit-and-run attacks from guerrillas in civilian garb, with the city's inhabitants sometimes caught in the crossfire.
Schiller's Kiowa Warrior helicopters worked with infantrymen from the 101st Airborne Division to subdue the historic city of Najaf.
The pilots flew low, often 30 feet above rooftops, and could see women and children everywhere, they said. At first, some Iraqi paramilitary fighters were spotted with tucked-in black shirts. Once they realized they were being fired at, they untucked their shirts to blend in more with the population, Schiller said.
Later, their combat boots helped the helicopter pilots identify them from the air, Schiller said. To avoid taking fire, the pilots said, they darted quickly in different directions. They had to be cautious of power lines, which are highly dangerous to aviators flying in cities. They took some small-arms fire, but there was no serious damage to the cavalry's fleet of 24 helicopters.
"They're not playing by the rules. We play by the rules. It sounds silly in war, but we'd like to think they'd stick by the Geneva Convention and play somewhat fair," Schiller said.
The aviators -- like all American soldiers -- were instructed to avoid spots of religious or historical significance, such as a huge cemetery in the city, unless they needed to fire in self-defense.
Knowing those rules of engagement, the paramilitary fighters hid in the cemetery, even firing from it, said Col. Al Ahuja, a senior watch officer in the 101st.
The Kiowa Warrior carries Hellfire missiles. But it is smaller than the Apache attack helicopter and better-equipped to maneuver in urban environments.
The aviators said the reception they got from the Iraqi people was mostly positive. Some people waved hello.