It’s been a bad summer for the man L.A. Weekly dubbed The Asset. A cover story last May detailed the life of an Iraqi double agent who spied on and killed insurgents on behalf of the United States. Faris Al-Baghdadi, who today spends weekends relaxing with friends in Los Angeles and weekdays working for the Marines in Camp Pendleton, was denounced by his father and brother, targeted for death — and then got the cold shoulder from the U.S. State Department when it was time to flee Iraq with his family.
Now he’s a man in a bind. His family is living safely in Sweden, a nation that took them in without delay. He sees them over Skype, and works long days at Camp Pendleton, where he is respected for his ability to quickly train Marines to cope with tricky situations on the ground in Iraq.
His high-level job as a language and culture instructor has protected him from possible deportation, but the man some see as a hero is in legal limbo, his life unfolding as a series of impermanent deals are negotiated to keep him on U.S. soil.
Iraq is out, or is becoming that way. Afghanistan is in. Iraqi language and cultural experts are no longer at the top of military hiring lists.
Still, in many ways, the shifting ground beneath him is not the worst thing facing Al-Baghdadi, who was tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime, his teeth shattered and his body horribly violated. After the U.S. invaded his country, he was hired as a translator, but he so impressed U.S. military leaders with his gutsy behavior during a surprise firefight that they turned him into an armed double agent.
Still, a guy is only so tough. He grieved all summer over losing his friend Douglas Vose, the brother of his closest U.S. military buddy, Major Jason Vose. The Vose military family of San Diego took Al-Baghdadi in after he moved to California, and grieved with him when he could find no way to bring his own family here from Sweden, stymied by the State Department.
Chief Warrant Officer Douglas M. Vose was killed in July in a different war altogether, hit by intense small-arms fire while conducting combat operations in Kabul Province. Vose, a 20-year veteran, was serving as the Special Forces Assistant Detachment Commander in Afghanistan.
Like so much that happens in war, Al-Baghdadi had a somewhat eerie connection to the late Vose. The two men were assigned to a dangerous mission together in 2004 in Baghdad, neither of them realizing that Douglas’ little brother, Jason, was Al-Baghdadi’s close Marine pal.
“I had provided intel on an [insurgent] cell that was directing suicide bombers,” Al-Baghdadi says in his American military-peppered slang. “We hit the house together and captured seven of the eight targets. Afterward he told me, ‘You remind me of an Iraqi officer my brother bragged about.’ We laughed when we discovered we had the same ‘brother’ — Jason! Both Vose brothers — one Army, one Marine — are the bravest of warriors.”
Since arriving in Southern California in 2007, Al-Baghdadi has been instructing young American Marines and their commanders on how to survive in Iraq. As the Weekly reported, among all the Iraqis who aided American forces, few proved to be more valuable than Al-Baghdadi. He led a secret “special ops squad” — a clandestine pro–American Special Forces team comprising only Iraqis who sometimes masqueraded as insurgents or criminals to get inside enemy camps.
But he lost his cover in 2005, and had to find a way to flee Iraq. His American military bosses were deeply troubled when the State Department refused to grant him asylum and his wife and child had to flee to Sweden.
Acting entirely “on a volunteer basis,” a group of U.S. Marines oversaw his harrowing, unofficial escape from Iraq. Although military officials confirmed to the Weekly that two assassination squads tried to kill Al-Baghdadi in Iraq, the United States refused him and his family permanent refuge in America. He finally got a U.S. visa through the persistence of Jason Vose, who convinced U.S. authorities of Al-Baghdadi’s worth. They allowed The Asset — but not his family — to move here.
Al-Baghdadi’s future is now as tenuous as the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. In January, Iraqi voters will decide on a referendum called the Status of Forces Agreement. If it is rejected by voters, the U.S. military must vacate Iraq one year early, at the end of 2010.
Since returning from a visit to his wife and child in Sweden in June, Al-Baghdadi has been living out of boxes stacked in his motel room. His employment agreement with Global Linguist Solutions, the private contractor that provides his services to the Marines, ended last month. He is working under a temporary extension.
Now, he wonders if he can use his Iraqi degree in aircraft engineering and his talent for languages — he speaks Arabic, English, Farsi and Swedish. To stay, he must prove to U.S. immigration authorities that his skills are of “significant public benefit” — the special classification he currently enjoys.
His former co-worker USMC Captain Tony Canarelli, having just returned from his fourth tour of Iraq, says: “I am sure Faris will find work somewhere, resourceful as he is. My hope is that he gets citizenship and can find work at a university, or designing for Boeing or someone.”
Staff Sergeant Wilder Louis tells the Weekly, “This man is real, and you gotta respect that. He has a deep sense of loyalty that cannot be faked, and that’s why I am not worried about him losing his job. If you ask anyone his story, they will tell you that life has thrown a lot his way — and this won’t slow him down one bit.”
Al-Baghdadi’s visa expires in October, when his “work authorization” will be revoked. He could then be deported to Sweden, but his dream is to bring his family to America. “I am a soldier. What would I do in Sweden — become a clerk in a grocery store?” he asks. “I am a warrior.”