US soldiers are luring Iraqis to their deaths by scattering military equipment on the ground as "bait", and then shooting those who pick them up, it has been alleged at a court martial.
The highly controversial tactic, which has hitherto been kept secret, is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of a number of Iraqis who were subsequently classified as enemy combatants and used in statistics to show the "success" of the "surge" in US forces.
The revelation came in court documents, obtained by The Washington Post , related to murder charges against three US soldiers who are alleged to have planted incriminating evidence on civilians they had killed. In a sworn statement, Captain Matthew Didier, the officer in charge of a sniper platoon, said: "Basically we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against the US forces."
Capt Didier, of the 1st Battalion 501st Infantry Regiment, said members of the US military's Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and later supplied ammunition boxes filled with "drop items" to be used " to disrupt the AIF [Anti-Iraq Forces] attempts at harming coalition forces and give us the upper hand in a fight."
Within months of the introduction of the strategy, three snipers in Capt Didier's platoon were charged with murder for allegedly using the "baits " to try to cover up unprovoked shootings. Specialist Jorge Sandoval and Staff Sgt Michael Hensley are accused of placing a spool of wire, sometimes used to detonate roadside bombs, in the pocket of a man who had been cutting grass with a rusty sickle after he was killed on 27 April this year.
Sgt Evan Vela is accused of shooting an Iraqi prisoner twice in the head with a 9mm pistol on the orders of Staff Sgt Hensley. The two soldiers told investigators that the man was carrying an AK-47 rifle. Other soldiers have testified that the rifle was planted next to the Iraqi after he was shot.
In earlier testimony Pte David Petta said he believed that "classified" items were to be placed on people killed by the sniper unit "if we killed somebody that we knew was a bad guy but didn't have the evidence to show for it".
The court martial of Spc Sandoval is due to start in Baghdad this week. His father, Curtis Carnahan, accused the US military of holding the proceedings in a war zone to try to minimise publicity.
"I feel you can't prosecute our soldiers for acts of war and threaten them with years and years of confinement when this ["bait"] programme, if it comes to the light of day, was clearly coming from higher levels."
A US military spokes-man said: "We don't discuss specific methods of targeting enemy combatants. The accused are charged with murder and wrongfully placing weapons on the remains of Iraqi nationals. There are no classified programmes that authorise the murder of local nationals and the use of 'drop weapons' to make killings appear legally justified."
A US military source said "baits" had been left by a number of units. "The guys picking them up are sometimes bad guys. But how do you know each time?"
Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, said: "This seems a highly arbitrary and suspect way of carrying out counter-insurgency operations."