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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The War of the Snipers

"Juba Returns," and Other Snuff Films from Iraq

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 armored vehicle guarding the men on foot.

The sniper team watching the US troops from several hundred yards 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 and 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.

The dialogue comes from one of many CD-videos being distributed in Baghdad by the Islamic Army showing their 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.

The film is 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 armor these days there is no point in vehicle patrols unless one soldier at least is visible and looking around him.

The personalizing 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 personalize 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 make up 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 Islamic Army snipers 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 communities live in increasingly homogenous neighbourhoods a Sunni sniper firing at civilians in the street can be increasingly certain of hitting a Shia and vice versa.

The "Juba Returns" video says that Islamic Army snipers favor the Tabuk sniper rifle which was produced in Iraq from a Yugoslav design.

It is accurate up to 500-600 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."

The puerile worship of the sniper is a relatively modern development in the US. During the Civil War snipers were much disliked by both sides because they killed men who were normally left alone by other soldiers such as men relieving themselves. As a result snipers were seldom taken prisoner but were shot on the spot by their captors.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of 'The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq', from CounterPunch

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