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Islamic State

The ‘martyr’ sniper who became legend after killing 384 Islamic State fighters

Ali Jayad al-Salhi took pride in his skill. He told of how a flying bird gave away the location of an IS sniper atop a date palm. He often told of a duel with a female IS sniper, whom he killed after he tricked her into believing he was dead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 9:54pm

Ali Jayad al-Salhi, a veteran sniper in an Iraqi militia, was killed in fighting with Islamic State in September.

He was then vaulted into legend, virtually becoming a new saint for the Shiite community.

Posters of al-Salhi, also known as “Hawk Eye” and Abu Tahsin, adorn storefronts, homes and car windows in his home city of Basra and other Shiite areas. One bakery even sells cakes with his face. Poems praise his valour and piety.

His rifle, with which he is said to have killed nearly 400 IS militants, is now in a museum in the holiest Shiite city, Karbala.

The fervour surrounding him points to the near messianic mystique that has grown up around Iraq’s Shiite militias in tandem with their increasing political and military might after they helped defeat Islamic State.

Known as the “Popular Mobilisation Forces” or “Hashed” in Arabic, the militias – many of them backed by Iran – have emerged from the war with an image among Iraq’s Shiite majority as virtually a holy force.

The popular aura further buttresses the Hashed as it stands poised to play a major role in post-IS Iraq.

It’s a stark contrast to the Sunni Muslim minority’s view of the fighters.

The Hashed is accused of abuses of the Sunni population in areas it seized from IS, and Sunnis see the militias as a tool for Shiite powerhouse Iran to dominate Iraq.

Some even speak of the Hashed in apocalyptic terms, linking them to Imam Mahdi, a Shiite religious leader said to have vanished 1,100 years ago and expected to return leading an army to defeat evil in the world. The Hashed, supporters say, will be that army.

Supernatural stories circulate among Hashed supporters on social media.

One video purports to show Imam Mahdi himself backing militiamen defending a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra.

In another story, a Hashed fighter says the imam saved his life by washing his wounds, telling him, “I am by your side”.

The Hashed intensely publicises the deaths of its commanders, announcing their martyrdom on giant street posters.

Al-Salhi has been held up as the ideal pious Shiite. Poems in his honour have been read to mournful crowds.

Thousands attended his funeral in the holy city of Najaf, where he was laid to rest in the Valley of Peace, a vast Shiite cemetery near the shrine of Imam Ali, the Shiites’ most revered figure.

Al-Salhi’s real life has intertwined with the hagiography, making it difficult to confirm the stories told of him.

In the early 1970s, he graduated from a snipers’ school in Belarus. During his career in the Iraqi army, he fought alongside Syrian forces in the Golan Heights against Israel in the 1973 Middle East war; against Kurdish separatists in Iraq’s north; and against Iran in the 1980-1988 war.

He lost a brother to Saddam Hussein’s executioners in the 1991 Shiite uprising in southern Iraq.

His family and Hashed comrades tell of his intense piety.

They say he took the Shiite tradition of travelling on foot to holy sites for pilgrimage to a punishing extreme: When other pilgrims rested at night, he walked all day and all night, only resting at his final destination.

In 2014, al-Salhi answered al-Sistani’s call to fight IS and went on to take part in Hashed’s biggest battles.

“We fight to win freedom for the Iraqi people and for humanity,” he said in one of multiple TV interviews he gave as his fame grew.

He took pride in his skill. He told of how a flying bird gave away the location of an IS sniper atop a date palm. He often told of a duel with a female IS sniper.

After trading shots for an hour, “I finally killed her when I tricked her into thinking I was dead and she rose from her hiding place,” he said, adding that he then killed two fighters trying to retrieve her body.

On the day he died, al-Salhi picked off four IS fighters, bringing his kill tally to 384, according to his commander at the Ali al-Akbar Brigade, Haidar Mukhtar.

But then he and two other snipers were surrounded by the militants and killed.

Mukhtar retrieved one final relic of al-Salhi: the casing from the last bullet he fired.

“I have kept it as a souvenir.”