- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq U.S. Apache attack helicopters killed at least two Iraqi paramilitary fighters gathering mortars from a bunker filled with Republican Guard munitions Thursday night as U.S. troops try to dissuade lingering regime loyalists from engaging coalition forces.

It is no surprise to U.S. troops that with Saddam Hussein's regime ousted and his army either demolished or dissolved that the heaps of weapons left behind may present problems.

"You can draw your own conclusions about Tikrit, Republican Guard and guns," said Lt. Col. Russell E. Stinger, of the 4th Infantry's Aviation Brigade.

Last night, two explosions near a 4th Infantry Division encampment may have been mortar rounds lobbed at the encampment. Military officials were investigating what caused the explosions. No injuries were reported.

Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, is Saddam's birthplace and a pocket of his most avid supporters. Military officials believe that before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, Republican Guard units stored rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms around the city.

On several occasions this week, bullets believed to have been fired by paramilitary forces have whizzed past Apache attack helicopters operating north of Baghdad.

Still, Apache pilots are "extremely sensitive" about when and at whom to unload the 30mm cannons attached to their helicopters, said Chief Warrant Officer Michael L. Reese, one of the 4th Infantry's more experienced pilots.

Apache attack helicopters are the Army's most lethal. In addition to the 30mm cannons, the two-man helicopters are equipped with Hellfire missiles.

Military officials said Thursday that Chief Warrant Officer Reese's Apache was flying over an area where about 10 men were seen loading mortar shells from a bunker into trucks.

The Apache fired several bursts of 30mm cannon fire at the ground a few hundred yards from the men as a warning and as an attempt to make them flee in the direction of several 4th Infantry Bradley Fighting Vehicles approaching the bunker at a distance.

At first, the warning shots appeared to work. The men dropped the ammunition and left the bunker. Some were detained, and a tube used for firing mortar rounds was found in at least one of their trucks, military officials said.

Chief Warrant Officer Reese said he flew his Apache away from the scene, believing that the situation was at least temporarily resolved.

Later Thursday night, however, 4th Infantry aviators received intelligence from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flying over the former Republican Guard bunker that one truck had returned and that several men were attempting to steal ammunition under the cover of darkness.

"As we were flying back, we were talking to the ground-force commander who actually had direct access to the video feed from the UAV," Chief Warrant Officer Reese said.

With Lt. Travis Landriph as the gunner in Chief Warrant Officer Reese's Apache and another Apache flying tandem, word came over the radio that in addition to the truck at the bunker, a second vehicle was bounding at about 45 mph down a dirt road nearby.

After scanning to make sure their gun sights were trained on the same vehicle being picked up by the UAV, Lt. Landriph and Chief Warrant Officer Reese were given the command to fire at the vehicle as it drove along.

Lt. Landriph shot at the vehicle's hood in an attempt to make it stop with one burst of fire from the 30mm cannon, a super-sized machine-gun that fires about 625 rounds per minute.

"We know one guy got out and ran," Chief Warrant Officer Reese said. Then commanders watching the UAV video feed "told us to go ahead and shoot him, too."

"Three to four bursts with the 30mm and we got the guy," he said, adding that bullets then began to zing past the Apache from the ground.

Flying swiftly, with its lights off, the Apache returned to the truck initially spotted at the bunker and destroyed it.

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