TIKRIT, Iraq – Sniper attacks and driveby shootings are the new hit-and-run tactics confronting the U.S. occupiers of Saddam Hussein's (search) birthplace, punctuating an eerie calm that has settled on this tense town since the dictator's capture.
Following months of multiple attacks, the number and strength of daily hits has decreased in the face of a heavy U.S. military presence and the humiliating circumstances of Saddam's capture.
In the past week, U.S. soldiers suspect the same gunman has scored two hits, wounding one trooper in the stomach and hitting the other with two bullets in the back. Luckily for the second soldier, his flak jacket stopped the bullets.
On Tuesday, another patrol came under fire, apparently from an assault rifle. No soldier was injured and the gunman escaped an intensive search of the area and raid on one house.
Tikrit, the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle (search) of Saddam die-hards, has been one of the most concentrated areas of anti-coalition attacks since the United States led the invasion in March, particularly in the months after President Bush declared an end to the war in May.
In scores of attacks since April, insurgents have killed five U.S. soldiers and wounded 52, including Saturday's sniper victim, who was evacuated to Germany for medical treatment. Peaks in the strikes were recorded in June-July, when 23 soldiers were wounded and one killed, and October, when three U.S. soldiers died and nine were wounded.
Lt. Col. Steve Russell, commander of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division (search) that is based in Tikrit, said small cells of Iraqi fighters caused most of the June-July casualties by engaging U.S. forces in smallarms fire, while the October attacks came mainly from homemade bombs, often planted by the side of the road.
Russell said U.S. forces met each peak with "aggressive responses" -- killing or arresting many of those believed responsible for the strikes. U.S. casualty figures in the following months plummeted. Improved intelligence gathering, with hundreds of informants coming forward to offer information, also led to multiple arrests.
"We have never taken the approach of handing out lollipops in the hope that they would like us," he said of residents of the town 100 miles north of Baghdad. "That doesn't work in this city. Different populations need different treatment."
The military does, however, hand out books, clothes and soccer balls to children and this week even gave Peugeot cars to local sheiks around Tikrit -- a perk that was a trademark of Saddam.
The Associated Press witnessed an example of the army's blunt means of getting its message across Tuesday on foot patrol with U.S. soldiers from the 4th Infantry's Charlie Company, which is based inside a palace where Saddam used to celebrate his birthdays with hundreds of supporters and military parades.
In tight formation, the small team patrolled up and down Tikrit backstreets, looking for suspicious activity and trying to ferret out details that might lead to suspects.
During the two-hour patrol, the squad forced their way into two houses, seizing a rifle in the home of one woman who shouted "I hate Americans, you killed my son!" Asmaa Ahmed Khattab showed the AP a picture of her 20-year-old son, who she said was killed along with several friends by U.S. forces in July.
An hour later, the crack of a single bullet momentarily stopped the soldiers in their tracks before they set off in pursuit. They burst into a nearby home, where Iraqi men were drinking tea under an olive tree.
"You tell me what you want and I will help you, but don't scare the women," said the owner, Tikrit University professor Bassem Saleh.
"The shot didn't come from here," he said. "We love you and we think you are improving things here in Tikrit."
The near-miss reinforced the new threat facing soldiers in Tikrit, of sneak attacks by a gunman either hidden or in a car that flees from the scene.
"It feels calmer out here and the numbers of attacks are going down, but they are coming up with new tactics," said patrol leader Sgt. Matthew Lesau, 25, of Pagapago, American Samoa. "Even though it seems quiet, you know they are still out there."
Russell, the commander, said "Things are getting quieter, but we definitely can't say the attacks have ended. There will be those that will never be convinced except by a bullet in the head."