As the Sunni insurgent group Islamic State rolls across Iraq, capturing cities and beheading some who don’t hew to its hardcore fundamental Islamic ways, Tampa resident Pat Morrison keeps a constant vigil on the man he says is the Iraqi military’s best hope to stop the bloody advance.
Morrison, who retired in February as a Green Beret lieutenant colonel, spent several years working closely with Fahdel al-Barwari, now the commander of Iraq’s Special Operations Forces Brigade, about 4,000 of that nation’s best trained, most well-disciplined fighters.
“They can make a movie about him,” says Morrison, who did three tours with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, the last as the senior U.S. advisor to al-Barwari.
U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft, under orders by U.S. Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, are currently hitting IS targets in al-Barwari’s Kurdish home territory. But to successfully defend themselves, the Kurds will need increased help, in the form of more weapons and greater training and support from the U.S., say Morrison and Scott Neil, another former Green Beret now living in Tampa who worked closely with the Iraqi special forces. And there is little hope for success, says retired Adm. William Fallon, the former Centcom commander, until Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki is finally out of power.
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A short, wiry, chain-smoking man with four wives, Fahdel al-Barwari has been engaged in combat since he was 16, says Morrison
“He fought against Saddam. He fought on horseback up north. He was with the U.S. as a Peshmerga captain and he was one of the first recruits for a unit that was stood up in the north by David Petraeus.”
That commando unit was trained secretly in Jordan by Green Berets and Navy SEALs, says Morrison. Commanded by al-Barwari, it led the way in the toughest battles of the Iraq war.
“He was in every single operation,” says Morrison. “If you name an offensive or operation from 2003 until the present, he was involved. He was in Fallujah 1, Fallujah 2. He was the first unit in and went after high value targets. There is no other unit in Iraq that captured or detained more high value individuals.”
Under al-Barwari, the commandos were ethnically diverse, something that proved to be a key to success, says Morrison.
“It was the only unit that was non-sectarian,” says Morrison. “If a unit was primarily Shia, he would have a Sunni battalion commander. If it was primarily Sunni, he would have a Shia in charge.”
With al-Barwari’s prowess in the field becoming legendary, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, decided to yank the commandos from control of the Ministry of Defense to himself.
There were other changes, he says, following in line with al-Maliki’s pattern of purging non-Shiites from key roles in the government or military. It was a move that exacerbated tensions between Iraq’s three main ethnic groups and helped create a fertile breeding ground for extremist Sunnis looking to exact revenge.
“I saw a lot of sectarian stuff,” says Morrison. “They started to remove the Sunnis. The entire counterterrorism headquarters removed all of the Sunnis, or marginalized them till they quit.”
Soon after Morrison left Iraq in 2010, al-Barwari himself was removed. But in 2012, after al-Maliki’s hand-picked generals proved woefully ineffective, the prime minster asked al-Barwari to return.
“He only agreed to do it if he was promoted to a three-star general,” says Morrison. “And so now he is.”
Watching the bloodshed in Iraq from afar, Morrison says he is fairly certain that he has seen some of the men he helped train massacred by the Islamic State (IS).
“They were executed with their own weapons,” he says.
All the while, Morrison says he knows that wherever the battle is most fierce, al-Barwari is there.
IS recently sent out a tweet, says Morrison, claiming that they had killed his old colleague in arms.
“But a day or so later, he tweeted that he was still alive,” Morrison says.
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For nearly a week, U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft have been hitting IS targets near Irbil.
The limited attacks, ordered by Centcom under the authority of President Barack Obama, have been aimed at IS convoys and weapons, most of them U.S. made and captured from Iraq’s conventional forces, that have been firing into Kurdish territory near where U.S. personnel are stationed.
U.S. military aircraft have also delivered more than 85,000 meals and more than 20,000 gallons of fresh drinking water, according to Centcom, to besieged members of the Yazidi minority sect, holed up and starving on Mt. Sinjar.
Morrison says the Peshmerga are tough fighters, living up to their name.
“It stands for ‘those who fight and die,’” says Morrison.
But as pugnacious as they are, the Peshmerga need a wider array of military supplies, says Morrison.
“They are going to need ammunition and weapons, small arms, mortars, those kinds of things,” he says, adding that much of their weaponry they do have is old and worn to the point of being useless. They are also in dire need of spare parts, vehicles and advisors to provide support for their operations.
The arms provided by the U.S. to the Iraqi government over the years did not find their way to Kurds in large numbers, says Morrison, but were instead diverted to the Iraqi military units that have been swamped by IS.
Aside from weapons, the Peshmerga are also going to need more air support, says Morrison.
Centcom officials say that U.S. warplanes have dropped laser-guided bombs on IS.
“I don’t know it first-hand,” says Morrison, “but if the targets are getting lazed, someone is there guiding them in.”
Morrison says that seems to point to the presence of what the military calls joint tactical air controllers, generally Air Force Special Operations Command personnel who provide guidance from the ground to aircraft.
“The 10th Special Forces Group out of Fort Carson has a long relationship with the Kurds up there,” he says.
Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant now living in Tampa, helped start up the Iraqi 36th Commando Battalion. He says that aside from weapons, the Peshmerga require improved communications systems and need to adopt guerilla tactics against the IS.
“Picking off artillery pieces is not going to stop the momentum” of IS, says Neil.
Any U.S. special operations forces working with the Iraqis are given very limited authority to assist, he says.
“We need to do the things the Green Berets used to,” he says. “We previously supported the Peshmerga when they were derailing the Iraqi army. That’s the same type of support they need now.”
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U.S. arms are beginning to flow directly to the Kurds, via the CIA, according to the Associated Press, a change to the standing policy of having Iraqi military officials in Baghdad receive and distribute weapons.
Doing so carries risk, says retired Adm,. William Fallon, a Navy aviator who flew missions over Iraq during the Gulf War and went on to lead Centcom in 2007, as the U.S. was surging 30,000 additional troops into Iraq.
“The risk is that the Kurds see this as some sort of endorsement of some independent entity in Kurdistan,” says Fallon. “In the long run, Iraq will be much better off if they are part of the solution, a total Iraqi security force.”
The Pentagon has said that hitting IS from the air is not aimed at stopping their advance.
Fallon says a much greater effort is needed to stop IS.
“You can’t win wars by airstrikes alone,” he says. “You can’t do it without them. You need them. They are very effective and essential, but the best way to do things is to complement them with a ground force, in close coordination between the two.”
Fallon is not advocating for U.S. combat troops to be involved. But he says that airstrikes from a distance, either from aircraft carriers or bases in other countries in the region, will lose effectiveness “as the bad guys figure out how to get warning of pending strikes.”
It’s ultimately up to the Iraqi military to provide that ground support, says Fallon. But like Morrison, he blames al-Maliki for its inability to stop IS.
“He was a challenge from day one,” says Fallon of al-Maliki. “And it was in my opinion based on a long feeling of persecution, long suffering at the hands of the Sunnis.”
Exerting his own iron-fisted power after decades of dictatorial rule by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, has led al-Maliki “to fear that somehow, the Sunnis were going to come back to power and exact retribution on him,” says Fallon. “He was highly biased against the Sunnis and that colored a lot of the things that we did while we were there.”
Fallon says that U.S. forces were able to keep al-Maliki in check while they were in Iraq “by any whatever means necessary to keep him from doing things that were outrageous.”
But after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, that changed.
“After we left there was little in the way of checks and balances,” says Fallon. “He was very tough to deal with when we were there. but after we left, we had no leverage.”
Fallon, who says Iraq’s best hope is for al-Maliki to go, may be getting his wish.
Even Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni seems to be backing Haider al-Abadi to be Iraq’s next prime minister, denying support to a defiant al-Maliki’s bid to retain power, says the AP.
“We are not going to be particularly effective until the government in Baghdad enjoys the confidence of the majority of Iraqi people,” says Fallon. “That is just about impossible under al-Maliki.”