Gethin Chamberlain of The Scotsman, with the Black Watch near Basra, 31 March 2003
THE tank crew spotted them first; four men in civilian clothes jumping out of a pickup truck in the centre of Zubayr. One had a rocket- propelled grenade launcher.
Corporal Mark Harvey was the first of the accompanying snipers to react, dropping to his knee and fixing the man carrying the RPG in his sights.
One shot, a moving target, the militia man dropping like a stone, dead before he hit the ground. The three others stopped, pulled his body into bushes by the roadside, then took off towards nearby houses.
But in the Challenger tank, their every move was being watched. As the Iraqis ran into what they thought was the safety of the rabbit warren of buildings, the snipers’ radios were crackling in their earpieces, guiding them in.
Moments earlier they had been sitting in a Warrior armoured vehicle, ready for another day of hiding and watching, never relaxing as they waited for a target to appear.
Now they were running towards the houses, all thoughts of cover forgotten, racing to the doorway into which their quarry had vanished.
In the lead was Corporal ‘Pedro’ Laing, SA80 rifle in hand. He reached the door and never paused, raising his boot and kicking hard against the woodwork, sending it flying open.
Inside an old man looked up startled, found himself grabbed roughly and thrown out of the doorway into the street, past Corporal Harvey and Lance Corporal Scott ‘Robbo’ Robertson, hot on Pedro’s heels.
Inside the building a militia man, pulling the pin from his grenade and hurling it at Pedro’s head. The corporal ducked, the grenade flying over his head, exploding in the street outside, shrapnel whizzing past his friends outside, fragments hitting Robbo at the top of his legs.
As Pedro got back to his feet, he looked up to see that the man had snatched up his AK47.
As he hit the ground again, a burst of bullets whistled over his head.
On his feet once more, he saw that the man had now grabbed the RPG launcher and down he went again, diving out of the doorway, the rocket missing him by inches, hitting the embankment across the street, the explosion sending Harvey somersaulting over the mound of sandy soil, landing heavily on the other side.
Later, he would realise that the fall had crushed a vertebra in his back and he could not stand up, but not now, not in the heat of the action.
Jumping up, he fired one shot at the man now standing in the doorway, slotted him, as the soldiers would say, a single round from his Accuracy International L96 sniper’s rifle from 20 metres, killing him instantly.
Then Robbo and Pedro were in through the doorway, throwing grenades on the run, one, two, three, four exploding in front of them, the tank outside pouring chain gun fire into the roof of the building.
As the grenades went off, the pair opened up with their rifles, finishing off the militia men, four lads from a mortar platoon rushing in to help make sure none got away, clearing the building, killing everyone in their way.
They could have left it to the tank to smash the place to pieces but there were other houses next door, innocent people trying to get on with their lives, playing no part in the war.
The 18-man sniper squad had feared they would play little part in war in the open desert.
But as the Iraqis threw away their uniforms and ran back to the towns and the militia men became the true enemy, they came into their own.
In the new cat and mouse war, the sniper was king. It was now eight days and 17 kills.
For Lance Corporal Vincent Polus, 24, who claimed three of the kills, it had meant days of lying still for hours on end.
Living off cold rations, unable to light a fire, an empty plastic bottle and cling film serving as his latrine.
Sometimes the snipers are in pairs, sometimes there are half a dozen of them stretched out across a position. They can be in a hole in the ground or a gap in a building, a window or a ledge on the rooftops.
Nine bullets are in the magazine of the single-shot, boltaction rifle, the favourite weapon of the Black Watch sniper.
‘Your eyes are on the target area all the time,’ says Polus, from Glasgow.
‘If a target comes into view you report it to command and ask permission to fire, then you check your elevation and adjust for the wind.
‘You have to get the breathing right, a couple of deep breaths, then you start breathing again normally and as you start to release your breath you squeeze the trigger. That’s the moment you are at your most steady.’ The first time he fired he had been stationary for three hours, waiting in a building near the centre of the town. No sign of anything moving, trying to keep alert despite the frustration beginning to creep over him. A colleague at his side, scouring the arc with his telescope.
Then the moment they had been waiting for, a group of men dressed in civilian clothes and a bodyguard carrying an AK47 with magazines of ammunition in his belt. Six of them in total.
Unaware of the two pairs of eyes following them from further down the street, the militia men moved forward, then stopped, half hidden from view.
Half an hour went by, their heads sometimes visible, but never a clear enough shot. No point in firing at one or two and risking the others getting away.
Then they were moving again, climbing into a flatbed pickup truck, the bodyguard crouching in the back.
Polus spoke a few words into his radio mouthpiece, asking for permission to fire, never taking his eyes from the target. Permission given, he adjusted his aim, checking the sights.
Seven hundred and fifty metres, no wind. He began his breathing, two short and then one normal, the air beginning to leave his lungs.
In the back of the pickup, the bodyguard fumbled, the AK47 slipping forward in his lap. Polus squeezed the trigger.
‘Through the sight I saw him fall back out of the truck and then the truck started to drive forwards. My sergeant put a couple of rounds into it but it was driving away and there were civvies coming out and picking up the dead guy,’ he says.
The truck had disappeared from view, but still Polus did not move, sure the sun behind him would have blinded anyone looking for his muzzle flash.
‘I just kept watching and then the truck appeared again.
That’s when I shot the driver. I couldn’t see much because of the sun on his windscreen but I knew where I was aiming. I hit him in the head and he fell out and went into a ditch.’
Corporals Laing and Harvey and Lance Corporal Robertson are now in line for a commendation for bravery.