By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Since arriving here in June 2007, Al-Baghdadi has been instructing young American Marines and their older commanders on how to survive on the mean streets of Baghdad and other cities in Iraq — the streets he fought on, alongside U.S. Army Special Forces and Marines, where he moved through enemy and insurgent camps as an undercover American agent.
He is a highly intelligent and well-schooled man, with a degree in aircraft engineering, an aptitude for technology and a knack for languages. In addition to Arabic and English, he is fluent in Farsi and conversant in Swedish.
He wakes at 3 a.m. each day and talks with his wife, teenage daughter and 2-and-a-half-year-old son via Skype, an Internet phone system that allows a small camera to display your face on the computer screen in close to real time. Sweden was the only country that would, after a long struggle, finally accept his family as political-asylum seekers after U.S. officials decided they were not “essential” to U.S. national interests. Only Al-Baghdadi is the “asset.”
His son, Jason, sees his father as a staccato image on a computer screen. Abdulla Jason, or “JJ,” salutes the Webcam and tells his father he misses him. Al-Baghdadi has visited Sweden twice in the past 18 months.
His wife, Wafaa, and daughter, Samah, resent Al-Baghdadi’s absence. At low points, Wafaa threatens to divorce him. She hates his commitment to America. Wafaa fears that with his new, Western lifestyle in California, he’ll be tempted by women — and with good reason. During his undercover work for U.S. forces, he became involved with “subjects” — women possessing important information. “Don’t ask me where I am going,” he would tell her.
Al-Baghdadi sends most of his substantial paycheck to Sweden, ensuring that his wife and children live at a once-unimaginable level of comfort. “Did you forget about us?” Wafaa asks the computer screen. “It is not your country. It will never be your country,” she tells him.
After an hour over the computer lines with his family, he checks in with his remaining contacts in Iraq, consisting of the few surviving men from his 60-man Iraqi counterinsurgency unit, the Night Hawks. Some were killed in battle, other Night Hawks were captured, then beheaded or burned alive. Al-Baghdadi keeps his ears open because he still wants to help destroy those who would harm Iraq — and America.
He seems slavishly loyal, arguing with detractors of President George W. Bush and defending the war on the grounds that removing Saddam was worth any sacrifice. When pressed, however, he admits that Iraq’s badly broken infrastructure, its massive outflow of refugees and its considerable sacrifice of blood were the results of a poor war plan, the consequences of incompetence and America’s ignorance of his country’s culture. Still, he calls Bush a hero. As he bluntly states: “If any force [was] on the ground — [whether it] was Iranians, was Israelis ... or was Americans — we would help to remove the former regime.”
Days after Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, Al-Baghdadi, along with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, returned to Baghdad from self-imposed exile in Iran. He greeted the Americans as the destroyers of cruel dictators, approaching soldiers on the streets. “You are great!” he remembers crying out. “God bless you! I want to help you! Can I ride on your tank?” The GIs thought he was a little crazy but liked his cocky attitude. They let him ride on the tank and drove him to a station where locals were being hired to assist U.S. military.
Al-Baghdadi understood the Western world because he had studied American music and films and emulated the self-assured style of John Travolta and Clint Eastwood. With his fluent English, Al-Baghdadi was immediately hired by Titan Corporation, a private contractor, and sent into the field with American soldiers as an “unarmed translator.” The first U.S. Army company he was assigned to was “Axemen”— one of three comprising the First Battalion, 37th Armored Division known as the Bandits.
Early on, during a joint operation with Iraqi soldiers, his squad was ambushed from three sides. Despite being hired as an unarmed translator, Al-Baghdadi rushed to the edge of battle, where he saw a dying Iraqi soldier, grabbed the man’s AK-47, returned fire and single-handedly charged an enemy position. Instinctively, the shocked American soldiers covered his advance.
The Americans were unaccustomed to seeing Iraqi soldiers — let alone an unarmed, novice translator — show the discipline Al-Baghdadi did that day in the summer of 2003. According to Joshua Revak, private first class in the Bandits, Blacksheep Company, who spoke to L.A. Weekly by telephone from Minnesota, a few months later, in July, “We were stationed at the Bunker, a fortress in the middle of Baghdad. Al-Baghdadi had just been introduced to us as our translator. Suddenly, we started taking small-arms fire, and our gunner left his rooftop position because snipers had zeroed in on him. Al-Baghdadi ran to the vacated position and started firing the 240 Bravo machine gun at the enemy. No one had ever seen an interpreter doing anything like that.”