Conflict in Iraq: The sniper who shoots on video

Juba, an insurgent marksman in Baghdad, claims to have killed 37 US soldiers - and tapes of his alleged hits are a vital weapon in the propaganda war. Report by Patrick Cockburn and Jerome Taylor

Thursday 09 November 2006 01:00 GMT

American soldiers stand around in a busy Baghdad street unaware that they are being closely watched. A gunner stands in the turret of a US armoured vehicle guarding the men on foot. The sniper team watching the US troops from several hundred yards away is waiting for a clear shot. There is the sniper himself and a spotter who is also operating a video camera. For a few moments they are frustrated by the number of Iraqis milling around, obscuring the soldiers.

"People are around them," warns the spotter. "Want me to find another place?"

"No, no. Give me a moment," says the man with the gun. There is a pause and then the crash of a shot and the gunner in the vehicle is hit and slumps forward. "Allahu Akbar - God is Great," says the sniper.

So far so familiar. But what is setting the modern Iraqi apart from his predecessors in other conflicts is that having made his kill, he takes time to make a diary entry, and then later, if reports are to believed, logs it on his personal blog - a site visited by more than 33,000 people to date.

Another video starts with a character saying: "I have nine bullets in this gun and I have a present for George Bush. I am going to kill nine people."

With that, he makes his way from the vehicle, and a series of separate scenes begin, showing several individuals shot in action. Nine are shot in all.

The dialogue comes from one of many CD-videos being distributed in Baghdad by the Islamic Army showing its snipers at work. One distributed in Sunni parts of Baghdad at the end of Ramadan last month shows 28 separate attacks, in several of which US soldiers are seen being hit in the head from long distance.

The most recent propaganda video is about a black-masked man identified as "Juba, the Baghdad Sniper" and shows him prowling Baghdad in search for unwary American troops. At one moment Juba is seen adding another "kill" to a list of 37 on a piece of paper on a wall. Possibly the film is a collection of videos of different snipers at work.

It also contains an interview with someone described as commander of the Baghdad sniper division. The subsequent footage shows numerous insurgents being trained in the use of sniper rifles. The video focuses on the fear the insurgency snipers create among US soldiers.

The films are important for two reasons. There do seem to be more highly accurate snipers hunting US soldiers. The most effective weapon used by insurgents hitherto has been the bomb in or beside the road - the notorious IED (improvised explosive devices). These have caused at least 998, or 35 per cent, of US combat deaths. There are no precise figures from the American side for casualties caused by snipers but 272 soldiers have been killed by small arms fire and a further 425 by unspecified hostile fire.

US soldiers are peculiarly vulnerable to snipers because much of the fighting in Iraq takes place in an urban or semi-urban environment so it is relatively easy for a sniper to hide and to escape. Although US soldiers are weighed down with body armour these days there is no point in vehicle patrols unless one soldier at least is visible and looking around him.

A recently captured insurgent sniper had a hole cut in the boot of his car, enabling him to fire at US troops while remaining hidden in the vehicle. He had mattresses in the car to muffle the sound and was using a Dragunov Russian-made sniper's rifle. The tactics were reminiscent of the Provisional IRA's South Armagh sniper team who terrorised the British Army throughout much of the early Nineties, by firing from a converted Mazda hatchback.

In a more up-to-date touch for the media age, he had also mounted a video camera on his car's rear window.

The personalising of a single sniper called Juba also shows an advance in insurgent propaganda techniques, in this case by the Islamic Army. Previous videos often just show US Humvees disappearing in a cloud of dust as an IED explodes. In this one, entitled "Juba Returns" - an earlier version started circulating in Baghdad in November 2005 - the "commander" who narrates the film says the Islamic Army now has a fair number of snipers. He adds: "The idea of filming the operation is very important because the scene that shows the falling soldier after he is hit has far more impact on the enemy."

Snipers have always fascinated film-makers, propagandists and the general public because they individualise men making war. The most famous in recent wars was Vassili Zaitsev who in the space of a few days during the Battle of Stalingrad became a Soviet national hero for killing 40 German soldiers, newspapers gloatingly dwelling on this Siberian hunter's ability to kill a man with a single bullet. Accounts were published, apparently fictional, about how the Germans had sent the head of their sniper school from Berlin to kill Zaitsev. After a prolonged duel the Siberian sniper shot him.

In Baghdad the rise of the sniper will increase the already numerous ways that Iraqi civilians can die. It is they - and not the Americans or the insurgents - who account for the great majority of the casualties.

It has long been evident that US snipers have been picking off people who use their mobile phones close to a US position and are suspected of planning to detonate a bomb.

I myself once stopped my car to use a satellite phone on an apparently empty road north from Baghdad when a single shot rang out and a bullet hit the road just in front of us. Looking around I saw it had come from a US position 800 yards away that I had not noticed.

Many Iraqis receive no warning shots and are killed immediately. Other victims of US snipers are people walking along roads with shovels who are suspected of planting IEDs but may be farmers or construction workers.

The US is nowhere near as effective, or indeed sinister, as the Iraqi insurgents when it comes to talking about its snipers. But in an account given to the Army Times, Sgt Randall Davis, a 25-year-old sniper, described spotting his target, an armed Iraqi on a rooftop about 300 metres away. "It was just getting dark. I saw a guy step in front of the light," he said.

Sgt Davis knew he was watching another sniper by the way the man stepped back into the shadows and crept along the roofline to spy down on a squad from his unit - B Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. "Most people, when they get on a roof, will just move around and do what they've got to do," he said in a recent interview here. "But this guy was moving slowly, trying to have smooth motions, trying to stay in the shadows."

From his own rooftop position, Sgt Davis tracked him with his favourite weapon - an M-14 rifle equipped with a special optic sight that has crosshairs and a red aiming dot. He didn't have to wait long before the enemy sniper made his second mistake. "He silhouetted his rifle from the waist up, trying to look over at the guys in the courtyard," Sgt Davis said. His M-14 fired only once. "I hit him in the chest. He fell back. His rifle flew out of his hands... You could see blood spatter on the wall behind where he was standing."

The confirmed kill, which was his eighth, included seven insurgents picked off in one day.

Iraqi snipers had attacked the US troops three days before the rooftop encounter. "It's kind of a professional insult to get shot at by another sniper," he said with the unmistakable bravado of his grisly calling.

The Islamic Army snipers like to show themselves on video attacking Americans. But there are growing reports from Baghdad of Sunni and Shia snipers shooting into districts of the other community. As Iraqis start to live in increasingly homogeneous neighbourhoods, a Sunni sniper firing at civilians in the street can be increasingly certain to hit a Shia and vice versa.

The "Juba Returns" video says that Islamic Army snipers favour the Tabuk sniper rifle which was produced in Iraq from a Yugoslav design. It is accurate up to 500 to 600 yards and has the advantage of using standard Kalashnikov ammunition that is available all over Iraq. The "commander" in the video says that Islamic Army marksmen rely on a training manual written by a retired US special forces officer called Major John L Plaister entitled Ultimate Sniper. It is freely available from bookshops and was updated "for today's Global War on Terror".

America has its own sniper subculture. Its youth are fed on a diet of films that hero worship the warrior engaged in single combat. The store carries dozens of books about the history of sniping, the craft and techniques, how-to guides for sniping and worshipful paeans to sniper heroism.

The cult of the sniper is captured in the motto "one shot - one kill". The phrase perfectly captures the accuracy, patience and the ice-cold killer's instinct needed for the job. But the table has been turned in Iraq, as Juba's videos reveal.

A deadly reputation

Simo Hayha

Almost unknown outside his home country, Finland, he is perhaps the most successful sniper of all time. A master of concealment, Hayha managed to kill 505 Russians in 100 days during the Winter War with Russia in 1940.

Vassili Zaitsev

Snipers became a crucial weapon during the Battle of Stalingrad, particularly in the propaganda war. The Siberian hunter became famous after notching up 114 kills. He was portrayed by Jude Law in the film Enemy at the Gates.

Carlos "White Feather" Hathcock

America's most successful sniper during the Vietnam War, Carlos Hathcock shot dead 93 Viet Cong fighters, often tracking them for days at a time in the jungle unnoticed. He is reported to have sniped one fighter at an astonishing range of 2,500 metres.

South Armagh Sniper

Firing from the back of a converted Mazda hatchback the South Armagh sniper, Michael Caraher, and his team terrorised the British Army throughout the early Nineties. Using brass bullets fired from a heavy calibre Barret rifle the team killed seven soldiers and two policemen before the SAS caught up with them.

Sniper Alley

During the siege of Sarejevo, Serb snipers used the mountains overlooking the Bosnian capital to rain fire down on the main thoroughfare. A total of 220 people, including 60 children, were shot dead on the high street, which quickly earned the name Sniper Alley.

Jerome Taylor

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