The Undercover Iraqi Asset
(Also read: "Seeking asylum and a better life, California's Iraqi refugees find themselves in limbo," by Hanna Inger Win. View photos in the "Iraqi Refugees in Limbo" slideshow.)
Faris Al-Baghdadi sits like a contented prince under a date palm in the sunny courtyard of his father’s home, which he calls the House of Books, and where he learned to love Western culture. He watches his infant son wobble to his feet. The boy grins at his mother, who kneels nearby. An instant later, the peace is broken by the sound of Metallica.
Al-Baghdadi awakes with a gasp, rolls over and turns off the alarm. The joy of that distant afternoon at the House of Books has vanished. In its place he finds a motel room and a deep, desperate sense of loss. His baby son, Medhi, died in a massive bombing many years ago. His wife, daughter and second son live 6,000 miles away. And Al-Baghdadi, once a valuable asset to American forces in Iraq, asks himself if he’s a hero — or a fool.
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The answer will have to wait. Al-Baghdadi has less than an hour to get to his job at Camp Pendleton. There, he’ll spend the day teaching Marines what he learned as an officer with his countrymen in the Iraqi Specialized Special Forces and as a covert agent for American occupation forces. He admires the Marines and believes the leatherneck’s unofficial motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” For them, he will forget, at least for a few hours, his heartache and, some might say, his betrayal. He can never return to Iraq. And he may not be safe here in California.
Among all the Iraqis who aided American forces, few proved to be more valuable and fewer still risked as much as Faris Al-Baghdadi (his name has been changed by L.A. Weekly). From 1988 to 1998 he served in Saddam’s Air Force. Eventually, he was arrested, charged with disloyalty (trumped-up charges, he says), and tortured by Saddam’s military. Exiled to Iran in 1999, he returned to his native country after the 2003 American invasion. He worked as a translator and quickly impressed his American employers, who promoted him to lead a secret “special-ops squad,” a clandestine pro-American Special Forces team composed solely of Iraqis who sometimes masqueraded as insurgents or criminals.
But Al-Baghdadi suddenly lost his cover in 2005, when the U.S. pulled his funding and support. Two enemy assassination squads tried to kill Al-Baghdadi, military officials tell the Weekly, yet U.S. officials failed to cut through the red tape to help him flee Iraq, and refused him and his family the refuge of a permanent home in America.
It was his U.S. Marine comrades, acting entirely “on a volunteer basis,” who aided him, through a harrowing and dangerous escape from Iraq. He was left to his own devices by the U.S. Department of State, and his family ultimately found a safe haven not in the U.S. but in Sweden.
Still loyal to America — or, more accurately, loyal to what he now calls “the idea of America” — Al-Baghdadi kept offering his help, until the Marines invited him to train U.S. troops in California. Through the persistence of one USMC major, U.S. authorities realized Al-Baghdadi’s worth and allowed the “asset” — but not his family — to come here. Today, Al-Baghdadi, with his adopted tribe of warriors near San Diego, is Semper Fi and gung ho. But during off-hours, often spent on weekends with friends in Los Angeles, he rages with disillusion and loss.
U.S. officials confirm Al-Baghdadi’s story and agree that he represents much of what is wrong with America’s handling of “foreign national assets” from Iraq. His leading U.S. Army Special Forces mentor, who asked not to be named for security reasons, says, “Al-Baghdadi always got the mission done for us by going anywhere, regardless of how dangerous it was for him to get the information we needed.” Al-Baghdadi narrowly missed being killed by two exploding IEDs and “joked about how working for me was dangerous to his health,” the mentor notes.
Al-Baghdadi’ story suggests that official bungling and indifference damaged U.S. efforts in Iraq and now threaten to break a man who did everything, including killing countrymen, because he believed in American-style democracy.
Today, when not spending his off-duty days in the San Fernando Valley, where he has a favorite spot — the White Harte Pub — and a growing circle of friends, Al-Baghdadi sleeps with the lights on in a motel room within walking distance of Camp Pendleton. On the wall above his bed hang an Iraqi flag, a Swedish flag and a noticeably smaller American flag. On the opposite wall is an erasable bulletin board on which the words are written: “Free in a motel room” and “I don’t need your golden egg.” His laptop and three cell phones are close at hand. He has a television, a microwave, a toaster oven and a comfortable bed, all amenities he never dreamed of during his exile years living in an Iranian refugee camp, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Still, there is a certain shabbiness to the room — not because it is run-down or dirty but because it reeks of loneliness.
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.”
Revak, who earned two Purple Hearts after being severely wounded in Ramadi in July 2006, figured, “He must have been real crazy or real stupid.” He later realized Al-Baghdadi was “just fearless.”
The man who soon became Al-Baghdadi’s U.S. Army commander, Major Sean Kuester, tells L.A. Weekly of a “Memorandum for Record” he wrote on June 18, 2004: “He is loyal to a degree not seen in today’s world.” And, he adds, “Al-Baghdadi has earned the nickname ‘Combat Al-Baghdadi,’ because he continuously volunteers to go out on missions.”
Al-Baghdadi was equally impressed by Major Kuester: “He treated my country with respect. He dealt with me as an officer — not as a coward Iraqi.” Major Kuester gave Al-Baghdadi — as a personal gift — a handgun and permission to carry it, an indication of admiration and trust.
At a dirt-cheap translator’s wage of $27 per day, Al-Baghdadi was able to convey the nuances of both languages. His style did not always sit well with superior officers, who mistook Al-Baghdadi’s long-winded translations of one-sentence questions as verbosity — until it became clear that the information Al-Baghdadi was able to convey in Arabic was not military English.
Marine First Lieutenant Tyson F. Belanger’s memo of February 1, 2005, explains that Al-Baghdadi “became a favorite translator of Colonel Toolan, the commanding officer of Regimental Command Team 1,” and his translations were recognized as combining “both art and force.”
Although some Americans may not have gleaned this fact from U.S. media coverage at the time, there was a postinvasion honeymoon of about six months, and Al-Baghdadi immersed himself in it, even as Iraqi collaborators like him came under pressure from their families, neighbors, tribes and religious leaders to stop aiding the Americans, or face death.
One of the biggest mistakes he saw was the arrogance exhibited by some American soldiers as an occupying force; they considered Iraqis inferior in every respect because of how easily the coalition conquered Iraq. But, Al-Baghdadi argues, “The majority of Iraqis didn’t believe in the war. We believed Saddam was using the war to oppress his own people. That is why we didn’t fight.”
Faris Al-Baghdadi, though, was a man full of fight. When Operation Iraqi Freedom brought down Saddam, it had been only a few years since Saddam’s secret police had detained Al-Baghdadi, imprisoned and tortured him. His shattered and missing front teeth, which a dentist in the San Fernando Valley is now painstakingly repairing, are a constant reminder of his final, monstrous torture session in 1999. A Pepsi can was slammed into his mouth while electric wires were attached to his testicles. The can was jammed into other areas of his body, a rape by object, which is almost unimaginable. “They tried to take my manhood,” he says today. “They could not.”
Al-Baghdadi had reason to despise America but didn’t. During the Gulf War, his baby boy was killed in the Allied bombing of Nasiriyah, where he was stationed at the Ali Air Force Base as a first lieutenant under Saddam. He dug a small grave in the garden and buried his son but blamed Saddam, who used Al-Baghdadi’s family and thousands of others as human shields.
He took part in the Shia uprising at the end of the Gulf War in March 1991. Like thousands of other Shia rebels, he believed that American and coalition forces would aid their coup after George H. W. Bush called them to rise up against Saddam: “to take matters into their own hands.” Instead, in what some Middle East experts see as a devastating betrayal of Iraq’s citizens, the first George Bush decided not to help because of concerns about destabilizing the region. In a 1992 statement regarding the removal of Saddam, Dick Cheney said that had the U.S. toppled Saddam during the first war, “the question is, What do you put in its place? You know, you then have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq.”
The Shia rebels and their families were ravaged and brutally suppressed by Saddam’s Republican Guard. While records of Al-Baghdadi’s torture do not exist, Major Jason Vose, who became the translator’s closest friend, says, “I do not doubt for a moment that he endured the torture and abuse from the former regime.”
Released from Saddam’s prison a nearly broken man, Al-Baghdadi left for Baghdad, joining his wife and his new baby girl, Samah. He watched in fury as the U.N. embargo imposed by Bush Sr., and then Bill Clinton, cut off essential supplies to the region. According to UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) reports, more than 1 million people died in Iraq from lack of medicine and food. Yet Iraq’s leadership, as reported in a 1997 analysis by USAF Lieutenant Colonel Randy T. Odle, “... still lived in the opulence enjoyed prior to the sanctions.” And did so until the 2003 invasion.
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.”
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.”
Ultimately, Al-Baghdadi says, he joined “the Dirty Squad” — a secret Iraqi counterterrorism force under the Iraqi Special Operations Force — which utilized violent tactics characterized as “unauthorized.” Speaking to the Weekly with tears welling, he acknowledges that some innocent people died during these actions. “They say a soldier should never look back. It was war. Still, one day I will tell about what I did that was wrong.”
His unauthorized operations with the Dirty Squad — whose existence has been confirmed by CBS News and others — led to his undoing in Iraq. His activities and his personal network of informants and men loyal only to him angered his Iraqi superiors and rivals in Iraqi counterintelligence. Resentment grew over his rogue methods and his ties to the Americans.
Al-Baghdadi, in turn, mistrusted the Iraqi Special Operations Force chain of command, riddled with corrupt members and double agents helping the insurgents. Some Iraqi Special Ops Forces officers answered first to their Shia or Sunni allegiances, some had tribal loyalties, and others were after cash paid by all kinds of insurgents for intelligence used to hurt U.S. operations.
Ultimately, Al-Baghdadi was betrayed by his countrymen. A 2007 Rand Corporation Report clearly lays out the corruption. In May 2005, Al-Baghdadi was relieved of his command, stripped of his weapons and given notice to remove his family from the safety of the Green Zone. The dismissal made vague references to his conduct as a major in Saddam’s Air Force, and his fitness based on his post-torture mental state — charges Al-Baghdadi says were nonsense.
Almost immediately, he says, two assassination attempts were made on his life. One day, on the treacherous highway to Baghdad International Airport, he was forced off the road by a black Opal filled with gunmen, and struck three times in the chest by bullets. But, his U.S. Special Forces sergeant and mentor recently told the Weekly, “Luckily he was wearing the [bulletproof] vest we gave him. He then returned fire and drove them off ... after all, he survived three other attempts on his life.”
He turned to his American friends to get his family out of Baghdad but discovered there was no procedure to quickly grant asylum to Iraqi assets. Glowing recommendations from American military commanders he had worked for made no difference to the U.S. State Department.
It began to sink in: American bureaucrats had no comprehension of the warrior code that demands no man be left behind. Al-Baghdadi’s greatest fear was not death. It was that he would be captured by terrorists and beheaded, and the video sent to his wife — a common punishment for “slaves of the infidels” — or that his family would meet that same, horrible fate.
Facing orders to leave the Green Zone, Al-Baghdadi began devising his family’s escape. He sold everything they owned and acquired forged travel documents, as he hoped to flee to Amman, Jordan, and then to America.
The most harrowing aspect of his and his family’s journey was the dangerous six miles of road to Baghdad International Airport — the most dangerous, some say, in the world. Al-Baghdadi knew he was being watched, and there was only one man he knew he could rely on, but his friend Jason Vose was on assignment in western Iraq. Al-Baghdadi recalls his urgent phone call to Vose: “I am telling you, man, we need to get the hell out of the country, I am fucking trapped here, hiding my ass like a cowering rat in my apartment — no weapon, and they may come any minute!”
Vose tells the Weekly he responded, in disbelief, “Who are they?”
Once he got the picture, Vose says, within hours he had arranged for an escort of Humvees to accompany Al-Baghdadi’s car to his departing flight. The unofficial escort was manned by U.S. Marines — volunteers. “I owe Jason my life — and the lives of my family,” Al-Baghdadi says with unabashed emotion.
Now–Major Vose says simply, “Much of what he accredits elsewhere is due to his own will and amazing character.”
Safe with his wife and daughter in Jordan in July 2005, Al-Baghdadi contacted the American Embassy there to apply for asylum, presenting a letter written by Vose, dated July 22, 2005, which read: “I beg any coalition authority or member of the U.S. State Department, American Embassy Country Team or Central Intelligence Agency ... to assist Major Al-Baghdadi to be granted asylum. ... What this man has done ... can never be measured or repaid.”
Instead, Vose explains, “The attitude was, ‘The State Department doesn’t work for the military.’ Bureaucrats and politicians who sit in air-conditioned offices and who have never shed their blood will fall back on irrelevant procedures.”
There simply were no fast-track procedures to bring endangered Iraqi allies to America, a situation belatedly addressed by the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007.
Al-Baghdadi applied to about 30 countries for asylum; Poland, England, the Baltic States, Belarus and Ecuador all rejected his appeal. In Jordan, he turned to human smugglers and began a dangerous five-month trek with his wife and daughter through Syria, Turkey, Moscow and Zurich — finally flying to Sweden, one of the few non–Middle Eastern countries that accepted Iraqi immigrants.
They arrived in Stockholm on Christmas Eve of 2005 with $2 — and were miraculously granted political asylum. Al-Baghdadi, who now speaks passable Swedish and is working toward Swedish citizenship by next year, is forever grateful. But the rejection hasn’t rested well with Marines like Vose, who believes that the U.S. clearly abandoned a top ally. In an interview for Swedish radio, Vose issued a rare complaint, saying, “I am very upset with my country as a whole for making it so difficult for Al-Baghdadi.”
The Marine visited his Iraqi ally in Sweden — and they’d hatched a plan. “He was happy to be safe in Sweden but felt useless in helping his country — and America,” Vose says. “He begged me to do something.” The idea was to use Al-Baghdadi as a “nonofficial” — meaning volunteer — language/cultural trainer for U.S. Marines heading to Iraq, so Al-Baghdadi could prove his value to stateside military, who were using private trainers lacking Al-Baghdadi’s language and battlefield expertise.
But Al-Baghdadi, arriving here in 2007 on a business visa, was told he could not bring his family. This time, even the Swedes created bureaucratic barriers — the family is unable to acquire Swedish travel documents until its Swedish immigrant status is finalized in 2010.
In June 2007, Al-Baghdadi was given a room in Vose’s San Diego home and treated like family. Vose’s father, Douglas, also a veteran Marine, “adopted” him, and Al-Baghdadi launched eagerly into work at Camp Pendleton — without pay. He was in a new, gray area. The Marines could not hire him directly, and the private contractor could not hire him under a mere business visa. Until early last year, Al-Baghdadi and his family in Sweden lived on the generosity of Vose and his Marine family.
Soon, the bosses at Camp Pendleton understood they had nobody like Al-Baghdadi, and so found a way to get him hired via a private contractor when an I-94 permit was granted on his passport, with the designation “Public Interest Parole” — essentially meaning that a foreign national is supplying a valuable service.
Today, Al-Baghdadi tries to fit in as a Marine instructor. He dresses neatly in a suit and tie — or in California casual. His expletive-laden speech emulates the military tradition, and so does his drinking of alcohol and consumption of “forbidden” foods. He instructs classes of 70 to 200 Marines on the basics of Arabic, an introduction to Islam, including the differences between Shia and Sunni, the tribal structure of Iraq, and assorted cultural no-no’s.
He tells his classes, “If you are not Muslim, never touch the Qur’an — unless operational security is at issue. If you violate this rule, apologize. You will be forgiven, and respect will grow from this.”
He conducts role-playing between young Marines and Arabic speakers, and with an eagle eye he analyzes, criticizes and corrects the raw recruits. His aim is to dispel misconceptions and, hopefully, safeguard the lives of trainees.
According to Lieutenant Colonel J.J. Kenney, the Marine officer in charge of the Camp Pendleton program when Al-Baghdadi began, “Al-Baghdadi is a dual-purpose weapon,” not just a top language and culture instructor but also “an experienced warrior whose counterinsurgency credentials are impeccable.”
Kenney, now stationed in Okinawa, adds with militaristic flourish in an e-mail to the Weekly: “His combat experience, dedication to his Marine comrades and his determination to contribute to the future free nation of Iraq shine through in his resourceful application of counterinsurgency techniques, skillfully blended with the remarkable language training he administers. Al-Baghdadi serves the Marine Corps in the finest traditions of Lafayette and Von Steuben, and I am very grateful to him.”
Al-Baghdadi’s emotional edginess, street knowledge and swashbuckling persona have a spellbinding effect on young Camp Pendleton troops who go on to join military and police transition teams, border patrols, liaison units and other teams in Iraq. His “Instructional Rating Forms,” reviewed by the Weekly, are filled with praise. He tells his classes: “I live in a room at the [local motel]. Swing by any time. But remember, beer is forbidden in Islam. Bring tequila.”
Marine Captain Anthony Canarelli, now in Baghdad training Iraqi police, writes to the Weekly: “I make a living working and training with U.S. Marines, who I believe to be America’s finest young men — they are heroes to me. I count Al-Baghdadi among my heroes as well. I consider his instruction and insight to be of enormous benefit to my work.”
Jeffery Payne, who supervises Al-Baghdadi, is the private-contractor program manager for language and culture training at Camp Pendleton, and a veteran of the Iraq War. He says simply, “He is one of us.”
Today, in his motel room, Al-Baghdadi looks more worn than his 44 years. A large man, he resembles an over-the-hill boxer. He identifies with both Rambo and Raskolnikov — an odd combination of archetypes that seems apt. He very likely suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, but when his friends encourage him to see a psychotherapist, he says, “It is a sign of weakness in my culture.”
Al-Baghdadi believes his loneliness is punishment for the suffering he has caused his family. He doesn’t believe he can ever be happy. As a nonpracticing Muslim, he senses the contempt of his more religious Islamic co-workers at Camp Pendleton. Still, he has no regrets.
He lives in a world not unlike the post–Vietnam War era. Americans are stressed over the recession, and doubly unhappy to be reminded of a war many view as wrong, unnecessary and costly. No one spits on American soldiers back from Iraq. But that may not hold for Iraqis in America. Al-Baghdadi has felt the resentment of people who somehow blame him for the dire economic conditions facing the U.S.
As the focus of the War on Terror shifts to Afghanistan under President Obama, Al-Baghdadi wonders how long his newfound stability can last. “I am no longer Iraqi,” he says. “I’m not Swedish. I’m not American. I have three Social Security numbers.” He always carries his important documents, in case he must depart quickly. “Everything,” he says, “is variable around me.”
A few months ago, Douglas Vose, Jason’s father, succumbed to the cancer he had battled for years. Al-Baghdadi kept vigil in the hospital room with the Vose family. When the old Marine died, just before Christmas, Al-Baghdadi felt as if he had lost his second father, saying, “He counseled me as a tribal elder would in my country. I loved him.”
When the Los Angeles firestorm blazed across the Chatsworth and Sylmar hills last year, not far from where Al-Baghdadi was visiting new American friends, the sky turned black, and a sense of doom settled on him. “This is like rain for me,” he says. “There are no Tomahawks, no gunfire, no loud screams of the frightened, dying people. Nothing to say my life is in danger. But it reminds me of the more than 40 days of Black Rain that fell on Baghdad. The raining of soot. It reminds me of ...”
He shakes his head but does not finish his thought.
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