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David Ignatius

'Our Guys Stayed and Fought'

By David Ignatius
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page A21

BAGHDAD -- Let's call it the "Adnan and Jim Strategy." These two soldiers exemplify the new U.S. plan to stabilize Iraq by training Iraqi security forces and embedding U.S. combat advisers with them. If their success can be multiplied many times over, then the Iraqi government should, over time, be able to contain the insurgency. But that's a big "if."

Adnan is Gen. Adnan Thabit, the leader of the Special Police Commandos. He's a big man, dressed in a black leather jacket, sporting a diamond pinkie ring and a mustache even Saddam Hussein would envy. Barking out orders at his headquarters in a bombed-out Republican Guard barracks in western Baghdad, he looks almost like a Mafia don.

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Gen. Adnan, as he's known, commands a force of about 10,000 men. He formed the commandos last summer, when security here was spinning out of control, at the urging of his nephew, the current Iraqi minister of the interior. He has a tough-guy résumé: a former member of Hussein's military intelligence service who was imprisoned in 1996 after he joined a U.S.-backed coup plot. One look at him and you know he is not a man you'd want to antagonize.

His police commandos are drawn from all over the country, and they include a mix of the country's religious and ethnic groups. A majority are probably Shiite Muslims, but Gen. Adnan, a Sunni, looks pained when I ask for an ethnic breakdown. "I don't care who's Shia, who's Sunni. I want only a good soldier who will fight for his country. I don't want anyone to ask that question, Sunni or Shia. We are all officers."

When the U.S. military first learned about the Special Police Commandos last September, Adnan told the Americans to go away. He didn't want their help and, like most Iraqis, was uncomfortable with the idea of U.S. military occupation. But he gradually agreed to work with the U.S. military, and then came to respect it deeply. That's where Jim comes in.

Jim is Col. James Coffman Jr., an Army Special Forces officer. He works for the man who heads the U.S. military training effort in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. Last September Petraeus asked Coffman to go check out the Police Commandos. Despite the initial rebuff, Coffman kept returning each afternoon to pay his respects to Gen. Adnan. The two soldiers gradually became friendly, and Coffman began providing supplies and some training help.

Coffman sensed that the commandos had what Petraeus is trying to foster in his training mission here: discipline, leadership and the will to fight. "I was totally impressed by how they conducted operations," Coffman recalls. "They had command and control, pretty good fire discipline, and they didn't harass civilians." He admired Adnan's professionalism and the fact that he threatened to fire his officers if they engaged in any religious or political activity on the job.

So the Americans decided to test the commandos in early October by sending them as part of a mixed U.S.-Iraqi force to regain control of Samarra, north of Baghdad. On the day the commandos were set to go, their headquarters was hit by a car bomb, with dozens of casualties. Adnan's troops moved out anyway, a few hours later. They fought well in Samarra and, using their own local intelligence, captured 38 suspected insurgent leaders.

The commandos next moved into Mosul in mid-November, after local police there had been shattered by the insurgents. Coffman accompanied them into battle. On Nov. 14, he and the Iraqi commandos were caught in a well-prepared ambush. They fought for more than four hours; four of the commandos were killed and 38 wounded, but they held their ground. Coffman was shot in one hand, but with the other, he kept firing his M-4 rifle and then, when he ran out of ammunition, an Iraqi AK-47.

Coffman was still wearing a heavy bandage on his hand when we visited Adnan's headquarters. His thumb and two joints were shattered in the Mosul fight. U.S. military doctors tried to evacuate him to Germany, but he refused. The Iraqi general looks over at his American adviser and says he's a brave soldier. "In the Mosul battle, he stood shoulder to shoulder with my men." It's obvious he could not pay a higher compliment.

That's what success will look like in the training and advisory effort that is now the centerpiece of the U.S. military strategy in Iraq: Soldiers who have confidence in each other and are successful in battle. Coffman is a tough officer, but there's a lot of emotion in his voice when he says: "Our guys stayed and fought."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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