From ‘Dirty Division’ to golden boys: the Iraqi force leading the country’s fight against ISIS

  • Col. Arkan Fadhil in the Al Haykil area southeast of Fallujah in June. ALI ARKADY-VII / Washington Post

Washington Post
Published: 7/26/2016 11:41:27 PM

Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, known as the Golden Division, were once so loathed that they were nicknamed the “Dirty Division.”

They were accused of running secret prisons and carrying out extrajudicial killings. Some lawmakers called for them to be disbanded.

But the country’s war against the Islamic State has restored the reputation of the elite forces, which have spearheaded nearly every major fight against the militants in Iraq. Their commanders have become battlefield celebrities, while popular songs praise the troops’ prowess.

The force of about 10,000 men is a small bright spot in an otherwise lackluster legacy of American efforts to rebuild Iraq’s military in the 13 years since the invasion. U.S. officials say it is their most reliable partner in fighting the Islamic State on the ground, while the Iraqi army struggles with corruption and mismanagement.

But with hundreds of casualties over the past two and a half years and few breaks for the men from the grinding war, Iraq may be slowly degrading its best weapon to fight the militants.

“We’re carrying the rest of them, but we’ve got used to it,” Col. Arkan Fadhil said with a shrug as he called in airstrikes from U.S.-led coalition jets in Fallujah a few days before the city was retaken last month. “It’s been from the beginning of the war until now.”

The first Iraqi to graduate from the U.S. Army Ranger School, he speaks English with an American twang picked up during a total of two years and eight months training in the United States.

Like his colleagues, Fadhil has seen many of the country’s battles.

“We’ve fought everywhere,” he said.

As the Islamic State made its first sweeping advances, a group of counterterrorism troops held on for months in the face of hundreds of car bombs during a fierce siege on Iraq’s largest oil refinery.

Last year, they led the battle to retake Ramadi, sweeping east to west as federal police forces struggled to progress.

They headed operations for Hit and Rutba, and scrapped for villages along the Euphrates River.

Most recently, here in Fallujah, Golden Division commandos were the first to break through defense lines set up two and a half years ago in the city, the first in Iraq under Islamic State control.

Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, their signature black Humvees raced through neighborhoods where the militants had planted deadly roadside bombs and built networks of tunnels.

“They are lead sled dog,” said Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, who headed the U.S. training effort in Iraq between 2013 and 2015.

The units were formed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion when officials realized that forces who could work closely with the United States would be needed as insurgency grew. They were modeled on American Special Operations troops, and drawn from across Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, including Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites.

With their U.S.-supplied weapons and training, there is little to distinguish from their American counterparts.

From the outset the Golden Division was viewed with suspicion because it was formed under the direct command of the prime minister’s office, rather than the ministries of defense or interior. Accusations grew that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was using the forces to eliminate his rivals.

“They hated us,” Fadhil said of their reputation before the fight against the Islamic State. “We had no restrictions on any kind of target. Now people have a lot more respect for us rather than fear.”

As one of their convoys drove through Sunni areas on the outskirts of Ramadi after it was retaken at the end of the year, children threw sweets at their cars and crowded around to snap pictures. A Sunni local official in the convoy remarked that two years earlier, people would have shut their doors and hidden in their homes.

“Their transformation over the past two years has been amazing,” said David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and a former adviser to the Iraqi counterterrorism force. “They went from being on the verge of being disbanded or absorbed to being the darlings of Iraq.”

The fact that the units were kept separate from Iraq’s traditional security structure in the end may have been their savior.

The Golden Division managed to largely insulate itself from the corruption that gnawed through the foundations of the Iraqi army and flourished elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the counterterrorism units received concentrated and continuous training from a small contingent that stayed behind after U.S. troops pulled out in 2011.

Commanders say that the accusations leveled at them in the past were politically motivated, but Bednarek said American trainers put a special emphasis on human rights in an effort to keep the force beyond reproach.

“There’s no questions there were quite a lot of allegations there . . . death squads for Maliki and all that,” he said. “We said to them, you are under scrutiny, there will be a lot of people who will try to throw you under the bus, so to speak.”

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