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Atop spiral minaret, Army sniper teams take aim

SAMARRA, Iraq -- The Bradt Travel Guide to Iraq lists it among a tiny handful of Saddam Hussein-era tourist sites, describing it as ''a synthesis of Babylonian ziggurat and Islamic architecture."

Now, it is a US Army sniper's nest.

Samarra's main landmark, a spiral minaret that looks like a slanted wedding cake, was built when the city was the capital of the Abbasid empire, the seat of power for the whole Islamic world. More than 1,100 years later, Samarra is a dusty provincial town caught between insurgents and the US troops and Iraqi security forces they are fighting.

The 172-foot minaret has been used by all of those groups to wage war.

Guerrillas used it to watch where their mortars fell, the better to aim them at US bases. Then, the Army's First Infantry Division pushed into the city in October. The perch is now occupied by American snipers on 24-hour shifts.

On Sunday, two New Englanders braved a night of freezing rain atop the tower, trying to spot anyone planting bombs to deter this Sunday's elections.

Later, in the afternoon sun, Sergeant Steve Langelier, 25, of Newport, R.I., and Specialist Sean Thomas, 24, of York Beach, Maine, surveyed the city's Golden Mosque and its grid of beige houses.

After spending one of every three days on the tower, Thomas said, ''We know how to push each other's buttons."

Both men told their parents to search for Samarra on the Internet to find a picture of the tower. They are now among the few parents of servicemen who can picture exactly where their children are in Iraq.

Once, insurgents aiming for the snipers hit the tower with a rocket. The brick structure now shows a dent and a circular black scar.

Captain William Rockefeller said he sees no contradiction with US insistence that it is wrong for insurgents to use mosques in battle, or US vows to preserve Iraqi archeological sites. The results, he said, are undeniable: the stretch of road it watches over used to be planted thickly with roadside bombs; since the snipers have been there, there are practically none.

''Because of us being up here, we've shut down a lot of the action," Langelier said. ''It's a benefit for the city."

No one from Samarra has complained, Rockefeller points out. But there could be a dark reason for their indifference. Samarra is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city. The caliphs who built the minaret, and the imams who once sounded the call to prayer at the Great Mosque beneath it, were Shi'ites.

Thomas admitted he did not know much about the history, despite the historical plaque at its foot. He does not get to read it when the shift changes at 10 p.m., he said. ''It's always dark."

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