By Robert Watson in Baghdad
Last Updated: 1:04am GMT 29/10/2006
Iraqi insurgents have formed a special sniper brigade which is drawing its inspiration from a US training manual by one of America's most revered snipers.
A new insurgent propaganda video shows how guerrillas have dramatically upped their kill rate of US soldiers with the help of The Ultimate Sniper, written by a retired US Marines major, John Plaster.
The tactics they have gleaned from the book, which is available on the internet along with an accompanying DVD, are thought to be behind a steep rise in the level of sniper fire on US troops in recent months.
A total of 36 such attacks have been recorded by the US military in Baghdad alone this month, of which at least eight are believed to have been fatal. In January, by contrast, sniper fire incidents were barely above single figures, and deaths relatively rare.
The video is thought to have been made by the Islamic Army of Iraq, whose followers are drawn largely from the 400,000 former Iraqi army soldiers who were dismissed by the US.
It is believed to have links to al-Qaeda, but the film tries to distance itself from the bloody methods of the foreign jihadists who kill civilians indiscriminately in their attempts to spark a civil war.
The tape features a long monologue by a man sitting in front of a sniper rifle whose face is obscured by computer pixelation. He describes the skills needed by the marksman – a steady hand, concentration and, above all, faith in Allah.
The video also shows a squad of men in lush, green fields typical of the Euphrates in the Sunni triangle, practising shooting with American M16s fitted with sniper scopes.
While the commander says his men use the Iraqi-made Tobruk rifle, the training manual has chunks written by one of the top-ranked retired marine snipers Major Plaster.
Major Plaster wrote his authoritative manual after three top-secret tours in Vietnam, sneaking behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia as part of the Studies and Observation Group. His book on sharp-shooting was described by one reviewer as "a great reference volume that could accompany training which is available to the military, police and citizens 'of good, moral character' ". The major was unavailable for comment yesterday.
The rise in sniper attacks has been most marked since June, when the US military put more troops back on to the streets of Baghdad after deciding that Iraqi forces were unable to cope. The dense urban environment, littered with numerous derelict buildings, provides gunmen with easy vantage points to pick off passing patrols.
John Plaster and his book
Retired US Marines major John Plaster and his book
The video, which is slickly produced and has English subtitles, is yet another sign of the increasing sophistication of the tactics of the Islamic Army in Iraq. While most of their members served in Saddam's military forces, training at that time was poor and produced few capable marksmen.
By contrast, the ability of the US forces' sniper units has always been admired, even by their Iraqi guerrilla enemies: their top operators can kill from up to 1,000 metres.
The insurgents have now also seized upon the propaganda value of their own sharp shooters, with their video including a "documentary" on a legendary insurgent sniper nicknamed Juba by US troops. The film, entitled Juba Returns, was handed out as a gift for Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, in Sunni areas of west Baghdad last week. Although some reports claim that Juba was killed some time ago – or may even never have existed – the film denies reports of his death and elevates him to a heroic status.
Interlaced with the documentary are shots of insurgent marksmen being trained and footage of American soldiers being targeted. Some are clearly dead, falling like puppets whose strings have been cut, others writhe around with wounds to the leg or abdomen.
"The idea of filming the operations is very important," one insurgent commander says on the video, his head covered in a red keffiyah headscarf. "The scene that shows the falling soldier when hit has more impact on the enemy than any other weapon."
Certainly the threat of death from an unseen enemy is enough to spook US soldiers. On patrol, top gunners now crouch behind armoured turrets when passing through built-up areas. The biggest fear of US troops is still the unseen and devastating roadside bomb, but wariness of the sniper squad is growing. The US military thinks the snipers are singling out medics, engineers and chaplains, in the belief that such casualties are especially demoralising. Commanders have been holding meetings about how best to respond to the new threat.