View Full Version : Man on a mission

04-30-07, 08:33 AM
Man on a mission
Iraqi commander gains trust of locals, respect of his soldiers
By Sean D. Naylor - snaylor@militarytimes.com
Posted : May 07, 2007

BAGHDAD — At first glance, Lt. Col. Rahim Katham al-Badry makes for an unlikely hero. The squat, pot-bellied commander of the Iraqi army’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Brigade, 6th Infantry Division, is 41 but looks at least a decade older. With his bulbous nose, bushy black moustache and eyebrows, and graying hair dyed jet black, he would never pass for a U.S. light infantry battalion commander.

But no U.S. battalion commander has to face the myriad challenges with which Rahim must contend daily: a battalion that never has more than 40 percent of its authorized strength present for duty; subordinates and peers who are actively working for any one of several enemies; fanatical foes who pose a constant threat to the lives of his closest relatives; a broken logistics system that has yet to deliver a single part for his battalion’s vehicles; and a complete absence of space and time to train his soldiers.

Drawing on seemingly boundless reserves of energy and sheer force of personality, Rahim has so far overcome those hurdles, gradually winning over Baghdad neighborhoods with a combination of guile and combat experience hard won on the blood-soaked battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war.

With U.S. strategy focused on pacifying Baghdad long enough to create breathing room for a political solution to emerge before turning over most security missions to Iraqi forces as soon as possible, Iraq’s future increasingly rests on the shoulders of men such as Rahim.

He may not look the part, but Rahim’s r�sum� is straight out of central casting for the sort of officer around whom the U.S. is trying to create a new Iraqi army. The eldest son of a tribal sheikh, Rahim will become the leader of a 10,000-strong tribe upon the death of his 80-year-old father.

Commissioned in 1987 as an air defense lieutenant in the Iraqi army, he soon found himself fighting in the Iraqi operation to retake the al-Faw peninsula, in which thousands of Iraqi troops died.

Initially a hard-driving officer, Rahim quickly soured on the Saddam Hussein regime after witnessing the carnage. His antipathy toward the Iraqi dictator only deepened when Saddam had Rahim’s brother and cousin executed for political activities against the regime.

“Right after the Iranian war, I wanted to escape from the army and Iraq because of what Saddam did to my brother and cousin, but I knew if I did he’d go after my mother and father,” Rahim said through an interpreter in an interview. “Then I changed from a highly motivated officer to one who just wanted to get it over with.”

Regime distrust hobbled his career, but Rahim fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and by 2003 was a lieutenant colonel commanding the defense of the Dora section of southern Baghdad as U.S. forces neared the city.

“When the U.S. troops got to my sector, I ordered my troops to stand down,” he said. “I was one of the people who were glad that the United States was here. ... By invading Iraq, the U.S. forces gave Iraq a chance at democracy.”

But Rahim’s hopes for a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy were dashed by the rise of the insurgency, which he blames squarely on the U.S.

America’s biggest mistake, he said, was disbanding the old Iraqi army. “You just created a new enemy — all the soldiers who lost their jobs. ... The U.S. yielded all those who had no jobs to the insurgents, who pay them to attack Americans.”
A team of American allies

In his struggle to mold his battalion into a force that can regain the ground lost by what he sees as these mistakes, Rahim has 18 close allies: the members of the U.S. military transition team assigned to 3/5/6.

Unlike some other transition teams that the Army pulled together from disparate units, the team supporting Rahim was created entirely “out of hide” from one organization — 1st Cavalry Division’s 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment — and is led by the squadron’s operations officer, Maj. Chris Norrie.

Given minimal guidance as to what the “end state” for 3/5/6 was supposed to be, and even less cultural training in how to get his message across to Arab soldiers, Norrie, who arrived with his team in October, was left to ad-lib his approach.

The first three months were particularly difficult. In the team members’ view, 3/5/6’s first battalion commander was probably corrupt, definitely prejudiced against Sunnis and lacking in leadership skills.

Some of his subordinates were no better. Matters came to a head Jan. 6 in a fierce battle on Haifa Street, a violent fault line in central Baghdad, when, “frozen with fear,” according to an account written by Norrie, 3/5/6’s operations officer refused to leave his vehicle and fight.

Though some Iraqi troops fought bravely, others followed the operations officer’s lead. Then 3/5/6’s battalion commander received an anonymous call detailing his wife’s movements over the previous 24 hours, finishing with a simple message: Quit your job or we’ll kill her.

He was gone the next day.

The battalion executive officer took command, but six weeks later he also vanished. Into the breach stepped Rahim, who had been working in the 6th Infantry Division’s operations shop. His arrival galvanized the battalion.

Norrie finally had a counterpart with whom he could forge a bond.

Most mornings begin with a pre-dawn breakfast in Rahim’s spartan office, attended by Rahim, Norrie and a few other U.S. and Iraqi officers. Upon entering the office, Norrie, 36, from Barton, Vt., who had never visited an Arab country before this deployment, greets Rahim and his immediate subordinates with huge man-hugs, exclaiming “A salaam aleykum, habibi!” (“Peace be upon you, friend”).

Norrie then discusses the plans for the day through an interpreter as a young enlisted aide to Rahim serves scrambled eggs, pita bread and chai.

The breakfast sets the tone for the rest of the day. Norrie greets each Iraqi officer with a beaming smile and the same smattering of Arabic phrases.
Ensuring loyalty

Rahim and Norrie agree that the biggest challenge facing the battalion — and, by extension, the nascent Iraqi army — is ensuring its soldiers are loyal to Iraq above all else, rather than to a tribe, sect, political party or militia.

While other U.S. officers “wish away the corruption piece” when talking about creating a viable Iraqi army, preferring to focus on training the Iraqis to perform a set number of tasks to standard, Norrie and his team feel that approach is backward.

“We have defined corruption as any act that threatens the populace,” Norrie said. “If they can do a cordon and search to standard, but they’re corrupt, then it doesn’t matter.”

Eradicating that sort of corruption in the Iraqi army is a tall order. To many in Iraq’s Sunni minority, the army is a force not only dominated by Shiite officers, but also infested with Shiite militia members. “About 50 percent of the officers I know are not loyal to the nation above all else,” Rahim said. “Half of them are loyal to political parties, tribes or religious sects.”

A Shiite officer married to a Sunni woman, Rahim makes it clear to anyone who’ll listen that he will not stand for any sectarianism in his battalion.

He’s been as good as his word, putting 18 soldiers either assigned or attached to 3/5/6 in jail for sectarian and criminal activities, according to Norrie.

Despite Rahim’s ongoing efforts to rid his battalion of corruption, doubts about the loyalty of Iraqi soldiers make it impossible to conduct planning or rehearsals for missions. The Americans brief Rahim on a mission the night before it takes place. The rest of the battalion is kept in the dark until they assemble prior to the mission on Saddam’s former parade ground in the Green Zone.

But Rahim’s approach, combined with the professionalism of the U.S. forces, pays off. On April 9, in Dakhliya, a Shiite neighborhood in southeastern Mansour, a homeowner tells the troops thoroughly but respectfully searching his house, “If you guys weren’t here, I’d never be living in this house.”

In the next house, Rahim repeats the same message he delivers in every home he visits, telling the head of the household that if militiamen come to the house and give the family any trouble, to cooperate with them, and then call him as soon as possible. “Let me deal with them,” he says, giving his direct phone number to every family.

Prior to 3/5/6’s move into southeastern Mansour, the battalion assigned to the area had been 4/5/6 under Col. Mohammed al-Zubaidy, whom Sunnis viewed as biased toward the Shiites.

“Before Rahim got here, it was a miserable situation,” said Falah Karim Yosif, an adviser to the chairman of the Iraqi Parliament, during an April 12 visit by Rahim, Norrie and their troops to the headquarters of the National Dialog Party, a moderate, largely Sunni group.

“I can’t believe how [Lt.] Col. Rahim has worked his magic here,” said Mahmoud Salih, the security chief for the office. “Now, when I walk down the street to the office, for the first time I feel safe.”

Rahim’s behavior around his troops is the exact opposite of his predecessors. His influence on the men is clear. “I’ve worked for 10 different battalion commanders, and I’ve never seen a battalion commander like him,” said Staff Sgt. Husam Husain, who works in 3/5/6’s intelligence cell.

Rahim, he said, “has taught us what duty really means.”
His own way

The battalion commander has his own way of doing things. He is disdainful of the large operations preferred by the Americans, in which hundreds of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers sweep through block after block, searching every house. In his view, packing that many soldiers into a small neighborhood risks alienating the people, because it only takes one offensive gesture or action to lose the good will Rahim has painstakingly earned through hours of diplomacy with neighborhood leaders.

This fear was not entirely misplaced. Despite strenuous efforts to prevent such episodes, over the course of five days in April, Rahim and Norrie received several complaints about the behavior of U.S. troops on the sweeps.

Rahim prefers small, focused, intelligence-driven raids and snatches, using information from residents he has befriended, as well as from his own spy network of soldiers who live as civilians in the neighborhoods, holding down civilian jobs and keeping their ears to the ground.

“He hardly ever runs into dry holes,” said Norrie, “and he’ll do target after target after target.”

Rahim cannot resist pointing out what he sees as the supremacy of his methods. On a recent afternoon, one of his search teams found a mortar round, six AK magazines, a pistol and a pile of loose 7.62mm ammunition in a house.

While his men zip-tied the two military-age brothers who lived there, Rahim questioned each of the women in the house privately. One — a sister — told him there were grenades buried in the front garden. The Americans swept the garden with an explosives-sniffing dog and a metal detector but found nothing. But Rahim’s gut told him the woman wasn’t lying. He ordered his men to dig. Sure enough, they discovered three grenades wrapped in tape and plastic.

“Sometimes,” a clearly satisfied Rahim told Norrie, “you’ve got to use brains, not machines.”

Rahim knows his effectiveness makes him a marked man. That doesn’t appear to intimidate him. But he is deeply troubled by the knowledge that his actions place his family at risk.

“I don’t know how much more I can take, because even when I have leave and go home, I feel I am a threat to my family,” he told Norrie.

His soldiers — not to mention the American troops who work alongside him — are hoping Rahim finds the strength to hang in there.