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A grinning Al-Baghdadi recalls, “He was looking at me as an Iraqi major who is being paid by the U.S. government, and, therefore, I must follow whatever he says without discussion. I saw him only as a fucking captain who needs to know his limits.”
The turning point came after Vose accused Al-Baghdadi of stealing a weapon. Al-Baghdadi had an MP5 submachine gun that he proudly carried, but Vose discovered that such a weapon had been stolen from the Iraqi Specialized Special Forces armory. Vose confronted Al-Baghdadi, waking him roughly from a sound sleep. The accusation was particularly galling to the proud Iraqi, another example of the American view of Iraqis as either thieves or laggards. Al-Baghdadi had recommendation letters from American military commanders such as Kuester, O’Brien, Belanger and others. He had access to top players, having even been photographed with Marine General James L. Jones, now the special security adviser to President Obama. But none of that seemed to matter.
“I told him, if he needed my weapon to save his own ass, to just take it,” Al-Baghdadi remembers of their late-night clash.
The following morning, Al-Baghdadi says, Vose handed the submachine gun back to him. Its serial number did not match the stolen weapon’s. He says Vose apologized: “I was wrong.” And Vose “didn’t hesitate to admit it.”
Vose remembers the incident differently, saying, “There was nothing personal in the confiscation.” Vose describes a later incident, in which he wanted Al-Baghdadi to grasp “that rule No. 1 was trust no one. I took him to a secluded spot and strip-searched him," and he jokes, "in every possible body orifice.”
Yet the two men soon became friends, a kind of superduo running one of the units of the Iraqi Specialized Special Forces in coordination with Marine operations. Vose provided Al-Baghdadi with funds, high-tech equipment, GPS devices, cell phones and digital cameras. Al-Baghdadi had a natural affinity for computers and became adept at PowerPoint presentations, briefing their teams in finding and attacking targets.
Then, in fall 2004, came the second battle of Fallujah. The Iraqi SSF had some 1,500 Iraqi soldiers and officers, but 1,200 of the Iraqis deserted or refused to go. Al-Baghdadi was among the remaining 300.
Al-Baghdadi and Vose fought shoulder-to-shoulder, operating as an “arrowhead,” piercing the city’s border — leading men with nowhere near as much combat experience. Vose says he was never more afraid in battle — which is not to say he was frightened. He refers to it as “danger close.” As he tells it, “We were moving into streets and alleyways, with insurgents firing from every dark window, doorway and rooftop. RPGs whizzed past our heads. As I moved forward, Al-Baghdadi covered me each step of the way. I remember running full-tilt and sliding into a mound of garbage to get a better angle to fire from. It was insane. But it needed to be done.”
Al-Baghdadi remembers, “It was then that I told him if ever I had another son, he would have his name.” It was a promise fulfilled in August 2006 with the birth of JJ — a derivation of Vose’s first name, Jason.
A Marine Corps colonel, who asked not to be named in this story and who was director of the Iraqi SSF, wrote in a memorandum later that Al-Baghdadi’s efforts “directly impacted success in defeating the insurgency by demonstrating extraordinary courage.” Al-Baghdadi’s new buddy Vose was awarded the Combat V for heroism, which Vose waves off, saying, “I was taught a Marine never boasts.”
The Iraqi SSF was disbanded after that battle, and Al-Baghdadi was discharged — with the Marine Corps colonel’s recommendation of praise added to a growing stack. Vose was reassigned to western Iraq, and the two friends kept in touch, sometimes coordinating the identification and “elimination” of enemy targets.
Then came the start of the long, muddled mishandling of Al-Baghdadi and his family after what he had done for American interests. The Iraqi tried to join, but was rejected by, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) on the grounds that he was an American spy — an indication of the enormous mistrust between the two countries. Al-Baghdadi formed his own, 60-man unit, made up of former Iraqi SSF soldiers and operatives and designated Night Hawks. But he was working unofficially, and outside the parameters of officialdom at the start of 2005. Though acting in conjunction with U.S. Army Special Forces, he operated in a gray area.
Al-Baghdadi worked undercover, often disappearing for weeks without seeing his wife and daughter, then 14. His position had secured them an apartment in the heavily fortified Green Zone, but they felt the disapproval from relatives and friends. Even now, his wife cannot forgive him for putting her and their daughter, Samah, in danger.
His unnamed U.S. Special Forces sergeant and mentor told the Weekly: “His daughter risked her life every day going to school while I was there, by dressing in Western wear and praising America for our help.” When Samah was threatened by a local boy, who let her know she might get “hurt,” her father “found out who it was and wanted to ‘take care’ of it — but I was able to convince him otherwise.”