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Iraqi voices: Colonel helped with the surge, then his past came calling

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops. 

By Kael Alford

Former Iraqi National Police Col. Ihsan Ali Ibrahim has the bearing of a man accustomed to giving orders. Even wearing his long white dishdasha and playing with his children, he’s got the presence of the most popular boy on the playground, the guy everyone wanted to please. Which is why he’s so uncomfortable in his new role as a recluse.  

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Col. Ihsan Ali Ibrahim sits at home with his young son and daughter, June 2011. Since his dismissal from the Iraqi National Police, he fears straying too far from home in case he is recognized by the members of Al-Qaeda or other armed groups that he helped to combat during his time on the force.

“I keep myself here in the house. I can’t do anything outside,” he says.

A career soldier and once one of the most feared law enforcement officials in the toughest neighborhoods of Baghdad, Ibrahim is now a man with nowhere to hide. Even in his own town of Dujail, he’s not really safe. He says his brother and brother-in-law were both killed by al-Qaida-affiliated groups here. His brother’s wife now lives under his roof according to Iraqi custom. 

During his career including the time he worked in tandem with US troops during the surge, he made enemies. Serving as law enforcement in Iraq is one of the most dangerous jobs. Revenge for grievances is status quo, the code of the street that challenges formal institutions. While American troops can leave, Iraqi law enforcement officials stay and expose themselves to continuous threats. “I worked against many kinds of criminals and gangs or other militias … so of course, I have to avoid them, because if I see them anywhere, maybe they’ll kill me,” he says. “Now I’m without guards or guns, protection or anything.” Now that Ibrahim can no longer work in law enforcement, he says he'd consider leaving the country for a life somewhere else. But with the American military apparatus gone, he has no one to ask for help.

Photo courtesy Ihsan Ali Ibrahim

Colonel Ihsan Ali Ibrahim, seen here in a Nov. 2009 photo, is a career soldier who served in the Iraqi National Police in West Rasheed from 2004 - 2011.He was dismissed in March of this year under accusations of ties to the Ba'ath Party.

His life is limited to the new two-story house he built just before he lost his job. He also feels safe nearby on the family farm full of date groves, vineyards and wandering chickens. But he can’t risk going much farther afield.

As the U.S. withdrawal progresses, the intensity of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s far-reaching campaign to purge Iraq’s government and security services of any traces of Ba’ath party affiliation has been increasing. Talented and experienced people are barred from public service, leaving them few other options. The tendency may reflect Maliki’s anxious grip on control in a country with a history of coup attempts from within. But it’s also an indication that Iraq’s sectarian and political rifts in Iraq are far from bridged. Wikileaks documents released in February this year contained U.S. diplomatic cables that indicated a systematic effort by Maliki’s government to stack the security services with Shiites, regardless of their qualifications.

Some observers have noted that Maliki’s purges border on paranoia, with citizens who obviously pose no threat being dismissed from their jobs or arrested.

Ibrahim’s fortunes have mirrored the recent convulsive history of the military and security services in Iraq, including the recent, ham-fisted “de-Ba’athification” efforts.

As a child, he started out on the wrong side of the law in Dujail -- a predominately Shiite city south of Baghdad, famous for its palm groves and an assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein by gunmen who hid in the lush orchards and attacked the former president’s motorcade in 1982.

In one of Saddam’s most violent acts of retribution, he sent his security guards to round up more than 600 men, women and children from Dujail, many of whom were executed. Others were imprisoned and tortured. The Dujail massacre was the primary crime for which Saddam was tried and hanged by an Iraqi court in 2006. After the purges, anyone from Dujail was blacklisted from holding official positions in Iraqi government.

Ibrahim hid that he was from Dujail and enlisted in the Saddam Fedayeen, the elite paramilitary organization of Saddam’s Baath Party, after graduating from military college in 1989. After two years of training with the Fedayeen, his commanders discovered he was from Dujail and had been arrested as a boy. He was immediately dismissed and imprisoned again.

After serving time, he was permitted to join the regular Iraqi Army as a major.

Fast-forward to the U.S. invasion. Ibrahim was fired from his Army post, this time at the behest of Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator to Iraq, who dismissed the entire Iraqi military in the early days of the occupation. When Iraqi forces were reorganized in 2004 as the country appeared to be spiraling into civil war,  Ibrahim was recruited to join a new elite paramilitary unit, the Iraqi National Police, charged with countering terrorism.

In 2007, U.S. military units began partnering with the INP on joint patrols to tackle sectarian violence in Baghdad’s West Rasheed district. The sector alongside the Tigris River was one of the most violent districts in the capital, with both Al-Qaida affiliated fighters and Shiite militias using it as a corridor to reach Baghdad from the south, leaving civilian carnage in their wake.

Photo courtesy Ihsan Ali Ibrahim

Iraqi Col. Ihsan Ali Ibrahim, center, is seen with U.S. Gen. Raymond Odierno when he was U.S. Joint Forces Commander in Iraq.

Taking part in the U.S. strategy known as the surge, Ibrahim finally got a chance to prove himself, helping to clear the sector of insurgents and make the streets livable again.

“We collected illegal weapons from the area, searching houses and bringing displaced people back,” he recalls with obvious pride. “We even closed and blocked the streets so people could enjoy themselves in the amusement park. This made us happy.”

Slowly, as patrols cleared the neighborhoods of insurgents, secured the markets and erected blast walls to protect civilians, residents who had fled the violence began to return.

But when U.S. forces ended combat operations in Iraq in 2009 and withdrew to their bases, Ibrahim’s past found him again.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began a fresh round of “De-Baathification,” gutting Iraqi institutions of qualified people for any actual or imagined connections to the now defunct Baath Party of Saddam.

On March 29, Ibrahim received a perfunctory letter of dismissal from the Ministry of Interior.

Ibrahim was baffled and crushed. He said he never even made it out of training for the Fedayeen 10 years earlier before being imprisoned for disloyalty to Saddam’s regime. Given his loyal service with the national police, he finds it hard to believe that he would be seen as a threat.

“If they really wanted to fire us, why did they … let us join in the beginning?” he asked. “All this fighting, risk and sacrificing for nothing?“

Ibrahim has sent formal appeals to the prime minister’s office and the national police commander. He says he was told by an official in Maliki’s office that he’d need to pay a $30,000 bribe to have his dismissal reconsidered.

Like a museum to a bygone era, enlarged glossy photos of Col. Ibrahim in his blue fatigues, presiding over neat rows of caches of mortars, RPGs and Kalashnikov rifles, line the pink and yellow walls of a spare bedroom in his home. Framed letters of praise from American commanders serve as testament to his competence.

One letter from Lt. Col. Matthew Elledge of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 4th Division names “Col. Ihsan” as part of the team that detained over 900 insurgents and discovered and destroyed over 800 weapons and ammunition caches. The letter reads:

“The aggressiveness of the Brigade is only shadowed by their compassion for the citizens of West Rashid (cq). …  “As the Coalition Force commander of this area, I leave with the greatest confidence that W. Rashid will be the shining light for all Baghdad to follow in their efforts to take back their neighborhoods and provide a peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.”

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Col. Ihsan Ali Ibrahim spends time with his son in a spare bedroom he uses as an office and museum to his accomplishments, June 2011.

The day before our interview, a bombing had rocked a West Rasheed market, the first major attack in the area in months. Ibrahim heard about it from some former colleagues, who called him to say civilians in the area were asking for his help. 

“It really hurt a lot because they’re all my friends, you know, my people,” he says. “…Terrorists don’t recognize that this is innocent blood of kids or women or anyone else.”

Seated on a plastic chair beneath vines heavy with grapes, Ibrahim says the attack adds a fresh sting to the steady pain of forced inaction.

“I lost all those people precious to me, and now I lost my job,” he says. “What else can I do, be a farmer?”


More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling

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