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
During the lean embargo years, “We were exploited by everyone — Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians,” Al-Baghdadi says with a sense of shame. Wafaa worked as a waitress, and his salary as a major in the Iraqi Air Force was shrinking. He worked odd jobs, but it was never enough. At one low point, Al-Baghdadi resorted to begging, and ultimately threatened a street merchant in order to get expensive milk for his toddler. As he retells the incident, a few days later, the vendor was surprised when the brawny man who had menaced him returned to pay his debt.
His life underwent a huge change after the second invasion, when he was hired by Titan Corp. as a translator, and given permission to carry weapons. Having won respect from many military honchos, Al-Baghdadi was chosen to be among a handful of Iraqis who got Marine Corps basic training — followed by Army Special Forces Close Target Reconnaissance and Intelligence training at Camp Fallujah, eight miles outside Baghdad.
By early 2004, at the insistence of American military bosses, Al-Baghdadi joined the Iraqi Specialized Special Forces Forces — the SSF — and his old rank as major under Saddam was restored. He functioned as the brigade intelligence officer. The SSF operated out of Camp Fallujah and was attached to the U.S. Marines RCT-1. Acting as a field translator for top American Army and Marine commanders, Al-Baghdadi fought in the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. In a memorandum to Titan Corp. dated July 6, 2004, Sergeant First Class James R. O’Brien wrote: “This translator has put his life on the line for the people of Iraq, Task Force Bandits, and other Coalition Forces.”
Slipping between roles as a translator, soldier and undercover agent, Al-Baghdadi scoured Baghdad, Fallujah, Karbala and other resistance strongholds for “actionable intelligence” — in plain terms, identifying attack targets and their locations. At times, Al-Baghdadi masqueraded as an insurgent, easily passing as Sunni or Shia. His key trainer in advanced intelligence techniques was an Army Special Forces sergeant first class, who cannot divulge his name for security reasons but became his mentor. The mentor e-mailed the Weekly, saying, “Al-Baghdadi showed me he had the knack for gathering information that was valuable to us for prosecuting targets. ... He was very well-connected and had people everywhere providing him information.”
Yet he worked without “official sanctioning,” posing as the leader of a criminal gang willing to kidnap and murder for cash, a guise that put him in contact with anti-American factions. Al-Baghdadi attributes the ease with which he slipped into undercover character to his boyhood acting roles under his father, a theater director, as well as to his particular brand of fatalism.
At first, Al-Baghdadi’s family and his father, Dhirghan, tentatively supported his work for the infidels. They were ecstatic at the promise of new schools, hospitals and jobs. Each time Al-Baghdadi visited them, he reaffirmed the coming of a new dawn, an era of stability and prosperity. But that time never came, and family arguments erupted over what Al-Baghdadi calls “the double standard.” It bothered him that his father used his newly granted right of free speech to condemn Americans for excesses that were mild compared to Saddam’s.
Al-Baghdadi, though a Shia, made no distinction about which insurgent groups he battled. When the Shia Mahdi Army, created by Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, began attacking coalition forces in mid-2004, Al-Baghdadi’s brother Hassan joined the Shia extremists in Sadr City, Najaf and Karbala. Suddenly, the brothers were sworn enemies. The last time Al-Baghdadi saw his father, early in 2005, his enraged brother pointed a gun at his head. Al-Baghdadi recalls that he reached out to embrace his fate, telling Hassan, “If you will find it in your heart to kill me, I will find it in my heart to accept death.” Hassan didn’t shoot. As Al-Baghdadi walked out of his family home forever, Hassan and his young sons taunted: “Next time we will take your head!”
Al-Baghdadi formed a brotherly bond with then–Marine Corps Captain Jason C. Vose, a hands-on type whose tricky job was instructing Iraqi Specialized Special Forces made up of Iraqi soldiers and officers. Vose, an athletic 33-year-old from Washington, was to Al-Baghdadi the picture-perfect image of the blond, blue-eyed all-American boy. He’d attended college and Officers Candidate School on a wrestling scholarship and was seasoned, expertly trained, street-smart, confident and stubborn.
Vose graduated from Marine Combatant Dive School — a specialized boot camp on steroids, a mark of his readiness to tangle. Al-Baghdadi says Vose was willing to use methods not necessarily in the rule book. He had to manage an undisciplined and diffident group of Iraqi officers, most of whom spoke rudimentary English, so they relied on very basic, hard-ass American lingo.
Vose recalls to the Weekly that his first impression of Al-Baghdadi was one of dislike. Al-Baghdadi was a favorite translator for Marine commanders like General James N. Mattis USMC — now NATO Supreme Allied Commander, but Vose and Al-Baghdadi started off by butting heads. As Vose remembers: “I had a disdain for Al-Baghdadi’s attempt to take over. I came to realize he was passionate — and not merely arrogant.”