Los Angeles Times
August 19, 2004
An Elite Iraqi Unit Waits, With Sadr In Its Sights
The U.S.-trained troops, modeled on the Army's Special Forces, are an
early success story.
By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer
NAJAF, Iraq - If the time ever comes to oust Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr
from the gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque, Lt. Hassan will be riding the first
wave of the assault.
A bald, 34-year-old Iraqi living at a barren U.S. military camp north of
Najaf, Hassan is part of an elite, U.S.-trained military unit - modeled
on the Army's Special Forces - that arrived here a week ago to help put
an Iraqi face on efforts to quash Sadr's militia.
Hassan is also a Shiite Muslim. As he's trained in 115-degree heat and
blistering sandstorms for a mission that may never occur, Hassan - who
didn't want his full name used - has been grappling with whether he can
participate in an attack on a mosque that his religion considers one of
its holiest places.
Ultimately, he decided his first duty was as a soldier.
"Sadr has stolen the mosque, and we must take it back," the lieutenant
said. "I respect the mosque. I don't want to damage it. But if somebody
shoots at me, I will shoot at them, even if they fire from behind the
wall of the mosque. If they order me to go into the mosque, there's no
question I will go."
As the conflict with Sadr's Al Mahdi militia has grown, one question has
been whether Iraqi forces were up to the task. In recent days, hundreds
of Iraqi army and national guard troops have been pouring into the Najaf
area from all over the country.
Facing his biggest challenge, Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad
Allawi, has gambled that the nation would accept an attack on the mosque
as long as Iraqi forces led it.
But the reputation and performance of Iraq's fledgling forces have been
spotty at best.
Hundreds refused to fight with the U.S. in Fallouja in April. In Najaf
last week, efforts by Marines and the Iraqi national guard to conduct
joint raids had to be canceled when guard troops failed to show up.
It's no wonder the Iraqi government is pinning its hopes on Hassan's
unit, formerly called the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense
Corps and now known as the Iraqi Commando Unit.
The unit is described as a rare success story in the U.S. effort to
rebuild Iraq's security forces. When other Iraqi troops fled Fallouja,
the Commando Unit stayed and fought, even when one of its leaders was
Trained by about three dozen Special Forces advisors, it has completed
dozens of raids and covert missions, specializing in mosques, prisons
and other sensitive sites where foreigners stand out.
"These guys are battle-tested," said one U.S. military advisor, who did
not want to be identified. "They're not training anymore. They are
actually doing the tricks. If anybody can do this, these guys can."
The unit was cobbled together eight months ago using the best soldiers
from various private militias, particularly the Kurdish peshmerga, and
Iraqi security forces.
After screening for physical fitness, mental aptitude and past ties to
the Baathist Party or Saddam Hussein, the troops were based at a U.S.
camp in Baghdad and now travel around the country as needed.
Many of the unit's leaders are ethnic Kurds who cut their teeth fighting
Hussein and Ansar al Islam, a terrorist group in northern Iraq.
"That's the reason they're so good," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive
officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. "After all the
things they went through under Saddam, they take this stuff personally."
Farhad Haji Omar, a commander with the unit, served most of his life in
the peshmerga, living in the mountains of northern Iraq. Since joining
the commando unit, he's able to see his family only about five days a
month, but he said he was proud of the work he was doing.
"We are sacrificing ourselves so the next generation will not have to
suffer like we did," Omar said.
The heavy Kurdish makeup of the force has stirred controversy and
ignited ethnic tensions. In Fallouja, Sunni Muslim residents bristled
last spring when Kurds arrived to restore calm.
U.S. officials insist that the force is now ethnically and religiously
diverse, with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Faced with their toughest assignment yet, officers of the unit, which
totals about 450, expressed confidence that they could take on Sadr's
militia, which they dismissed as "a gang." Iraqis have played a role in
devising a possible attack on the mosque, they said, though they
declined to be specific.
"If they can't solve this problem in the political way, we'll solve it
in a military way," said Capt. Masood Salih, 24.
Since arriving in the desert camp, the unit has been training and
drilling daily in urban warfare tactics, using tents as stand-ins for
city buildings and practicing how to quickly launch - and halt - an
Last week, the unit conducted a dress rehearsal of sorts when it raided
a small mosque in Kufa where Sadr militants had been storing weapons.
Several dozen Iraqi commandos stormed the Saleh Mosque in a small fleet
of white Land Rover Defenders. A subsequent gun battle killed 12
militants and led to the capture of another 12. There were no other
Waiting about a block away was a U.S. Marine unit prepared to offer help
if the Iraqis needed it. Capt. Samuel Carrasco with the 1st Battalion,
4th Marine Regiment, has provided such backup to Iraqi national guard
units several times.
"And they usually need it," Carrasco said. But during the mosque raid,
the Marines held their positions.
"They didn't need our help," Carrasco said. "That's the first time I've
seen that happen."
This is very good. I think Iraqis have an undescribable hunger to take their country back, and turn it into something it always should have been.
We'll see just how desirous they are when the fighting peaks.
I suspect thesee guys are very driven. I am surprised to hear that they take prisoners.
A Kurdish army by all intents and purposes, with an Iraqi label. Very nice!