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Soldiers in Baghdad chasing 'ghosts'

By Arwa Damon
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- "Last I heard, one wounded in action -- and they are still taking enemy fire. Let's go!"

Staff Sgt. Michael Lopez slams the door of his humvee. The men of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, Task Force 1-26 Infantry, 1st Infantry Division had just received a call for back-up from another platoon a few hundred meters away.

What was meant to be a day meeting the Iraqi people in one of Baghdad's eastern neighborhoods abruptly turned into a long day of what the soldiers now refer to as "chasing the ghosts of small arms fire." The troops used to laugh about these "ghosts" and their poorly aimed potshots, but now they take them very seriously. (Watch soldiers chase the ghosts -- 2:19)

That's because the situation has escalated beyond the random potshots. Now, U.S. troops are hunted by well-trained sniper teams who lay in wait on rooftops and other well-shielded positions.

So far this month, at least nine of the 19 U.S. troop deaths in Iraq involved small arms fire and not roadside bombs.

Death is very real to these men. Most have seen it in front of their own eyes.

By the time the soldiers of the 2nd Platoon arrived at the scene of the sniper attack, the ghost is long gone. Inside the house where the soldiers believe the attack came from is a nervous, stuttering man trying to say in broken English that the sounds of shooting came from somewhere else. But shell casings litter the rooftop.

He is taken in for questioning and gunpowder tests.

The street below looks deceptively normal. Small children wave up to the troops on the roof. It's hard to imagine that a U.S. soldier was just shot through the arm here.

The soldiers of the 2nd Platoon soon return to their original mission: meeting the people. But within minutes of arriving in the neighborhood, potshots ring out again.

The men move through the dusty, rubble-strewn alleys of eastern Baghdad looking for clues, scanning rooftops. But the ghosts have faded away.

Patrolling here is a contradiction of emotions. U.S. troops have to keep up their guard against snipers and bombs while maintaining a friendly approach toward the Iraqi population.

This same day, a small-arms fire attack claimed the life of another soldier. His unit was flagged down by Iraqis. There was a drive-by shooting in the area, and two Iraqis lay dead in the street. As the Americans called in the Iraqi police, a deadly shot rang out.

The troops cope with such events by drawing strength from one another. On the surface they still joke around, but the pain of their losses is evident in their eyes.

"It's about controlling your fear," one soldier said. Every time soldiers hit the streets, they are rolling the dice.

"It's tough, but it's the mission we were given," he said.

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Arwa Damon

CNN correspondent Arwa Damon says snipers are a growing problem for U.S. troops in Iraq.

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