U.S. forces put seized Iraqi AK-47s to good use

BAQOUBA, Iraq — U.S. troops in Iraq may not have found weapons of mass destruction, but they're certainly getting their hands on the country's stock of AK-47s — and, they say, they need them.

The Army soldiers based around Baqouba are from an armor battalion, which means they have tanks, Humvees and armored personnel carriers. But they are short on rifles.

Each four-man tank crew is issued two M-4 assault rifles and four 9-mm pistols, relying mostly on the tank's firepower for protection. But now they are engaged in guerrilla warfare, patrolling narrow roads and goat trails where tanks are less effective. Troops often find themselves dismounting to patrol in smaller vehicles, making rifles essential.

"We just do not have enough rifles to equip all of our soldiers. So in certain circumstances, we allow soldiers to have an AK-47. They have to demonstrate some proficiency with the weapon ... demonstrate an ability to use it," said Lt. Col. Mark Young, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.

"Normally an armor battalion is fighting from its tanks. Well, we are not fighting from our tanks right now," Young said. "We are certainly capable of performing the missions that we have been assigned, there's no issue with that, but we do find ourselves somewhat challenged."

In Humvees, on tanks — but never openly on base — U.S. soldiers are carrying the Cold War-era Kalashnikovs, first developed in the Soviet Union but now mass-produced around the world.

The AK-47 is favored by many of the world's fighters, from child soldiers in Africa to rebel movements around the world, because it is light, durable and known to jam less frequently.

Now U.S. troops who have picked up AK-47s on raids or confiscated them at checkpoints are putting the rifles to use — and they like what they see.

Some complain that standard U.S. military M-16 and M-4 rifles jam too easily in Iraq's dusty environment. Many say the AK-47 has better "knockdown" power and can kill with fewer shots.

"The kind of war we are in now ... you want to be able to stop the enemy quick," said Sgt. 1st Class Tracy McCarson, an Army scout, who carries an AK-47 in his Humvee.

Some troops say the AK-47 is easier to maintain and a better close-quarters weapon. Also, it has "some psychological effect on the enemy when you fire back on them with their own weapons," McCarson said.

Most U.S. soldiers agree the M-16 and the M-4 — a newer, shorter version of the M-16 that has been used by American troops since the 1960s — is better for long distance, precision shooting.

But around Baqouba, troops are finding themselves attacked by assailants hidden deep in date-palm groves. Or they are raiding houses, taking on enemies at close-quarters.

Two weeks ago, Sgt. Sam Bailey was in a Humvee when a patrol came under rocket-propelled grenade and heavy machine gunfire. It was dark, the road narrow. On one side, there was a mud wall and palms trees, on the other a canal surrounded by tall grass.

Bailey, who couldn't see who was firing, had an AK-47 on his lap and his M-4 up front. The choice was simple.

"I put the AK on auto and started spraying," he said.

Some soldiers also say it's easier to get ammo for the AK-47 — they can pick it up on any raid or from any confiscated weapon.

"It's plentiful," said tank crewman Sgt. Eric Harmon, who has a full 75-round drum, five 30-round magazines, plus 200-300 rounds in boxes for his AK-47. He has about 120 rounds for his M-16.

Staff Sgt. Michael Perez said he would take anything over his standard issue 9-mm pistol when he's out of his tank.

And the AK-47's durability has impressed him. "They say you can probably drop this in the water and leave it overnight, pull it out in the morning, put in a magazine and it will work," he said.

Young, the battalion commander, doesn't carry an AK-47 but has fired one. He's considered banning his troops from carrying the Kalashnikovs, but hasn't yet because "if I take the AK away from some of the soldiers, then they will not have a rifle to carry with them."