The soldier uses what he learned on the streets to weaken the insurgency.
MOSUL, Iraq -- From inside a vacant building, Sgt. 1st Class Domingo Ruiz watched through a rifle scope as three cars stopped on the other side of the road. A man carrying a machine gun got out and began to transfer weapons into the trunk of one of the cars.
"Take him down," Ruiz told a sniper.
The sniper fired his powerful M-14 rifle and the man's head exploded, several American soldiers recalled. As he fell, more soldiers opened fire, killing at least one other insurgent. After the ambush, the Americans scooped up a piece of skull and took it back to their base as evidence of the successful mission.
The March 12 attack -- swift and brutally violent -- bore the hallmarks of operations that have made Ruiz, 39, a former Brooklyn gang member, renowned among U.S. troops in Mosul and, in many ways, a symbol of the optimism that has pervaded the military since Iraq's Jan. 30 elections.
Insurgent attacks in this northern Iraqi city, which numbered more than 100 a week in mid-November, have declined by almost half, according to the military. Indirect attacks -- generally involving mortars or rockets -- on U.S. bases fell from more than 200 a month in December to fewer than 10 in March. Although figures vary from region to region, attacks also have declined precipitously in other parts of Iraq, creating a growing belief among U.S. commanders that the insurgency is losing potency.
"We are seeing a more stable environment," said Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, which operates in eastern Mosul. "Have we made a turn yet? No, but we're really close to it."
Reason for decline
The military attributes the decline to several factors, including Iraqis' increased willingness to provide information about insurgents and the growing presence of the new Iraqi security forces throughout the country.
But the main reason, military officials said, is a grinding counterinsurgency operation -- now in its 20th month -- executed by soldiers like Ruiz, a platoon sergeant in the 3rd Battalion's C Company. It is a campaign of endless repetition: platoons of American troops patrolling Iraqi streets on foot or in armored vehicles. Its inherent monotony is punctuated by moments of extreme violence.
"Our battles have been beyond ruthless," said Ruiz, adding that he believes most Americans have little understanding of how the conflict is being fought.
"An urban counterinsurgency is probably the ugliest form of warfare there is," said Capt. Rob Born, 30, the C Company commander.
U.S. soldiers said they have been hardened to the violence by months of fighting insurgents who often kill or maim civilians or target people marginally associated with the Americans. In Mosul recently, U.S. forces have come upon dozens of decapitated bodies with notes attached. One accused a victim of "sin and corruption" and quoted the Koran: "We have not done injustice unto them, but they to themselves."
Born, a West Point graduate from Burke, Va., said he was struck by his own indifference to the violence when it involved the insurgents.
Last week, for example, a suicide car bomber tried to blow himself up next to one of C Company's platoons. As the car approached, U.S. soldiers opened fire from Stryker attack vehicles. The bomb went off about 20 yards from the nearest Stryker, causing only minor injuries to the Americans.
Born arrived to find parts of the bomber's body scattered in all directions. His initial reaction, he said, was "euphoric" -- relief that none of his men had been killed or badly injured. Of the bomber, he said, "I felt absolutely nothing."
The violence "kind of becomes your reality," he said. "If a year ago you would have told me that seeing that kind of carnage would have little to no impact on me, it would have surprised me. I don't think I'm any less sensitive or less compassionate ... but I have really developed my thoughts on the [insurgents]: I have no sympathy for them. It's funny how you can detach yourself from normal human feeling for a group of people but you're able to retain it for everybody else."
Pvt. Adam McCamant, 19, of New Philadelphia, Ohio, arrived at the scene with Born. "It kind of made my day better," he said. "It was like, yeah. He killed himself without accomplishing what he wanted."
Infantrymen with C Company said no soldier is more ruthlessly proficient at fighting the insurgents than Ruiz, a son of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Ruiz's unit, the 4th Platoon, has killed at least 15 suspected insurgents in the past two months, according to soldiers. Commanders said the unit encounters more enemy contact than any other platoon in the battalion.
The platoon calls itself the "Violators." Its patch depicts a leering skull clad in a green beret, blood dripping from its mouth. Its motto is "Carpe Noctum," or "Seize the Night," a reference in Latin to the platoon's propensity to operate after dark.
A self-described "greaser," Ruiz wears a pencil-thin mustache and slicks back the dark hair on the top of his head with Rebound Activator Gel. The lower half of his scalp is shaved.
Around the platoon's barracks, he has a friendly, energetic, exuberant presence and can be almost fatherly with his men, eight of whom are Hispanic and sometimes speak with him in Spanish. His living space is immaculate, with two ornate rugs and a stylish clock/lamp shaped like a saxophone.