Meet three Iraqis who will help determine whether this week's handoff of authority and sovereignty to Iraq from the U.S. will succeed.
Two army officers and one National Police general, they are among the hundreds of uniformed men the U.S. must rely on to make Iraqi cities safe. How they do their jobs will signal, in small but telling ways, if six years of American occupation has helped Iraq more than it has harmed it.
They all work in northwest Baghdad. With a major Shia shrine in the sector, it's a draw for pilgrims. Nearly 3 million people live within Its 322 square miles The Iraqi Army, combined with Iraqi National Police units for checkpoint and other security, totals around 106,000. They outnumber Americans 3:1. Insurgent attacks have dropped to around 1.7 a day from 2.5 a year ago, but residents still fear for their safety. The Ministry of Interior is building a wall around much of the area that includes the shrine to further increase security. These three officers have a lot to do.
Iraq Army Staff Brig. Gen.Ismail Hamid Hamas Tha'ir has headed the 22nd Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division for less than a month. A 20-year soldier, he commanded artillery units for seven years and more recently ran a base support battalion near Baghdad International Airport.
A few nights before the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from major Iraqi cities, the general talked animatedly for an hour. As an aide served heavily sugared lemon-flavored tea, U.S. Lieut. Col. Steve Toohey listened, nodded and answered the general's questions.
The general, waving a two-page Arabic-language document, and sometimes holding a phone to each ear, was confused about whether U.S. combat forces would still be patrolling--on their own--without the Iraqis asking for help.
Toohey repeated the American mantra that they are in Iraq now to 'assist and support," always letting the Iraqis take the lead. If they ask for help, they'll get what the Americans call "enablers"--from sniffer dogs to high-tech weaponry.
Brig Gen. Tha'ir said it was crucial that Americans hold up their end of the bargain. "What do I tell a child if he asks me, 'Why are the Americans still patrolling?' Or a woman? He compared June 30 to 2007 when the Iraq soccer team won the Asia Cup championship. "People celebrated for a week," he recalled. "Maybe this time for a month!"
The general waxed philosophically when he observed that had Saddam Hussein aligned himself with one of two countries, Iraq's fate would have been much different, and better. Those two countries: "America or Japan."
His area of operations includes the famous Kadhim Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Later this month, two million or more pilgrims--including hundreds of thousands of Shia from Iran--will make their annual visit to the shrine. His soldiers and the National Police officers under him will be responsible for their safety. Earlier this year, suicide bombers, including two women, slaughtered hundreds near the shrine.
The general's voice boomed around the ornate room from behind a highly polished wooden desk. Two sabers hung over one wall, and waist-high vases of artificial flowers sat next to large comfortable chairs. But his voice softened to a whisper when he leaned forward and said: "The Iraqi people have suffered too much. They need to be happy."
Someone had given him a bouquet of fresh yellow roses, real ones. Before his promotion and a move, he grew flowers and other plants in the garden of his home. But it's too dry where he lives now, and as for most Baghdadis, the electric power goes out too often to run a water pump.
When peace comes to his country, he said, he will again grow flowers.
Capt. Haithum Haidr, operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army's 6th Division, already has three strikes against him for promotion: 1)he's a Kurd; 2)his wife is a Sunni Arab; 3)he was one of the first former Iraqi Army officers from the Saddam regime to sign up with the Americans in 2003.
In an army that favors Shia, the fact that he is one may not be enough to avoid the political landmines and please the right people that any officer in any army must do to win bars and stars. All he's got going for him is performance. Maj. Scott Nauman, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, thinks Haithum's battalion is the best of seven Iraqi Army units he works with.
It was in charge of Haifa Street in northwest Baghdad, a breeding ground of insurgency, and cleaned it up. Then it was moved to the Hurriyah district, the heart of sectarian violence in the area, and calmed it down. "If every battalion in the Iraqi Army was like this one, we could have withdrawn a couple years ago," Nauman says.
Haithum graduated from university with a degree in Farsi, one of the six languages he speaks, including guttural but clear English. He entered the army in 1983 as an enlisted man and got out eight years later as a warrant officer. Partly because of his language fluency, he worked in intelligence. He signed on with the Americans after the 2003 invasion.
"I have learned that politics must also come with a rifle," he said over a lunch of rice and lamb in the battalion's new mess hall. He showed a cell phone photo of his three children: one daughter is 14, a son 12 and "the devil," another daughter, is 10. He's still not sure he promised her the golden bracelet she now wears.
The captain advised Nauman, who was to brief all the battalions' operations officers about the withdrawal, to "simplify it when you're explaining the JOC (joint operations center) because a lot of the officers can't comprehend it." But once they understand it, "they will do it."
He grabbed an AK-47 rifle off a shelf. You know why we call this an Osama bin Laden, he asked a visitor. Because in the first pictures of the al Qaeda leader taken after 9/11, the shorter version of the famous weapon rested against a wall in the background.
He told Nauman about a bad guy he's got his sights on--not an insurgent, but a pimp, thief, blackmailer. Once he gets his man, he assured the major, he'll make sure all of his rights are protected. Then with a thin smile, he added, "Of course, we'll follow procedures--he will have to be handcuffed and blindfoldeded." And if, for his own protection, the suspect has to be transported in the trunk of a car, the captain will make sure it finds the bumpiest roads to the jail.
He let out a sigh. "I think after my daughter finishes university and marries"--in around 10 years--"then my country will be normal again."
Gen. Dhafir of the Iraqi National Police keeps two small "love birds" in a cage underneath the aquarium in his office in northwest Baghdad Neither the fish nor fowl disguise the man's aggressiveness.
Operating under the administrative umbrella of the Iraqi Army's 22nd Brigade, 6th Division, he and his men--and a growing number of women who complete the four-month police academy--are responsible for security in a critical part of Baghdad. They man (and woman) the checkpoints, and the female officers are used to search women passing through. (Two female suicide bombers killed at least 66 people and wounded 125 others in April near a mosque in the area.)
Those checkpoints, despised by ordinary Iraqis for the slowdown in traffic, try to keep out the bombers and other insurgents who have targeted the northwest sector. It includes Karkh, Beladiya, Ghazaliyah and Khadhimiyah--areas of holy shrines, the Tigris River, shops and markets and cafes aching to make a profit and tens of thousands of homes.
A day before the historic transfer of control over military operations from the Americans to Iraqis, the general spoke of his gratitude to the Americans. "It is a turning point for Iraq and Iraqi history," he said. "For us it is like a serial that started in March 2003, and we will have a happy ending in the last episode. I want to state to the American people that June 30 is a victory for both Americans and Iraqis. The sacrifices that America gave to this country are a part of the American people as a whole. You gave Iraqis freedom and control of our counry. You should be especially proud of the men and women who came here to help us and gave their lives to liberate Iraq and make it a democratic country."
He turned to his American liaison, Lieut. Col. Drake Jackson. "I am ready," he said. "This is our first important mission. We are going to be in combat providing security. That's why we are very ready. You (gesturing to the officer with a silver retractable pointer) have helped us greatly with our training. The new training will help us change over operations, and that's what benefits us the most."
Three military men. Now they and their comrades are once again in charge of their own country, of its destiny.
The world--and their countrymen--will soon find out if they are ready.
--By Mike Tharp