FALLUJAH, Iraq — Iraq's counterterrorism forces, known as the Golden Division, were once so loathed that they were nicknamed the "Dirty Division."
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 2 1 / 2 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 Rutbah 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 2½ 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 that could work closely with the United States would be needed as the insurgency grew. They were modeled on American Special Operations troops and drawn from across Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
With their U.S.-supplied weapons and training, there is little to distinguish them 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 Defense or Interior ministry. 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 the city 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 question 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.”
The Golden Division remained cohesive even as the Islamic State propelled Iraq into crisis in 2014 and the Iraqi military collapsed despite the more than $20 billion the United States spent to rebuild it.
Maliki soon departed, ending the accusations that the soldiers essentially acted as his private army.
The force is now the “most professional, technically capable force” that the government of Iraq has at its disposal, Bednarek said.
But the Golden Division was not created for its new role.
“We used to have missions for selective, high-value targets, small-team operations,” Fadhil said. “We’ve never done operations of this kind of magnitude, three or four battalions.”
The weight of running a ground war is putting an inevitable strain on the division.
Even as its fighters were in the thick of the Fallujah fight, some had to be called back to Ramadi to recapture areas on the outskirts of the city that they had secured months before. Police and tribal fighters had lost control of the ground once more.
“There’s a weakness in the army and other forces which has increased the pressure on us,” said Brig. Gen. Haider al-Obeidi, the division’s field commander for the operation, recalling the early days of battle as he walked through the streets of one of the first areas to be retaken in Fallujah.
“Now when we are advancing, we have to leave lots of gaps. We didn’t have time to search every house, every tunnel,” he said, gesturing down a street lined with cinder-block houses. “There should be a force coming in after us.”
He stopped to receive coordinates for a strike over a walkie-talkie. With a pop, a bullet flew into the leg of a soldier standing next to him who was jotting the locations down in a notebook.
“Sniper!” someone shouted as the men took cover behind a small building. A Humvee screeched over, bundled up the injured officer and rushed him off.
“As I told you, we couldn’t clear all the houses,” Obeidi remarked. Later, he said the round was more likely a stray bullet, but his point still stood.
Shiite militias arrived in Fallujah to assist after neighborhoods were cleared of militants. But using Shiite militias in large Sunni population centers has its sensitivities. Haider al- Abadi, the prime minister, ordered them out earlier this month after houses were burned, leaving some Golden Division units holding the ground.
Still, the forces are under less strain than before, Obeidi said. Their worst days were during the first days of Iraq’s war against the Islamic State in Ramadi, he said. After a militant assault in January 2014, the military engaged in a bloody tug-of-war before finally losing its hold on the city a year and a half later. “We were overwhelmed,” he said.
Before the war, the men would do seven days on an operation, seven days of training and seven days off. Now that’s changed to two weeks on and a week on leave, but the intensity of the fight means that doesn’t always happen.
Fadhil once did 118 days straight in Ramadi.
The men don’t expect much of a pause now that Fallujah is behind them. There are more battles to fight in Anbar province, while other Golden Division units have already begun operations south of Mosul.
Their front-line role has made for heavy losses. The battalion Fadhil commands had 240 men in December 2013. Now it has just 190, even after replacements were sent in for many of those killed.
Other units have lost more men, he said. They are hard to replace. “You can’t mass-produce special-operations guys,” Fadhil said.
That day, a Golden Division Humvee was hit by fire from an SPG-9 antitank gun. The men were from Fadhil’s old unit, but he didn’t know who had died.
“I don’t have their names yet,” he said, returning his attention to his cluster of walkie-talkies. “We’ve lost so many.”
Mustafa Salim in Fallujah and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.