- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Home was a short drive but a lifetime away for Capt. Furat, a young Iraqi army officer whose courage under fire exemplifies America’s best hopes for the budding military force.

While other soldiers visited relatives in nearby towns and villages on weekends, Capt. Furat remained at his base north of Baghdad for fear of exposing his family to danger; he had become too well-known and the death threats too specific.

At least, that was the case until he made a fateful visit home on Christmas Day.

Capt. Furat — whose family name has been withheld from this article to protect his relatives — served as a special forces soldier in Saddam Hussein’s army and took an American bullet in the leg during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Later that year, he joined the new Iraqi army as what is now known as the “Tiger Battalion” was being formed in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

That alone made him a target in the mixed Sunni-Shi’ite region, where the tensions that fuel the Iraqi insurgency remain intense.

Leading by example

Capt. Furat loved a soldier’s life. A powerfully built man who once boasted that blood from an earlier battle still stained the knife that hung from his belt, he had begun to gain superhero status among the men he led and the Americans soldiers with whom he fought.

Over time, the battles with insurgents became more frequent. Attacks came in spurts, sometimes two or three in a single week.

Capt. Furat typically would be leading his men in flimsy, unarmored Nissan pickup trucks when insurgents struck, usually with a roadside bomb followed by a burst of bullets from the palm groves lining the Diyala River and its tributaries.

U.S. forces rushed to strengthen armor on their own vehicles after a soldier raised the issue with visiting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in December 2004, sparking a public outcry in the United States.

But more than a year later, most Iraqi troops remain easy targets. In October, insurgents lying in ambush killed four men from Capt. Furat’s unit, including his bunkmate, as the soldiers provided security for a constitutional referendum.

When such attacks came, Capt. Furat was typically first out of his truck, returning fire, shouting orders, attending to the wounded.

His men, their resolve stiffened by his example, stood their ground in combat time and time again. More often then not, they would drive off the attackers before U.S. forces arrived to support them.

The Tiger Battalion is just one unit of several hundred men, a small part of a larger effort in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis risk their lives daily by working with the Americans.

Beyond survival

But during a recent two-month period in which I served as an embedded photojournalist with his unit, I witnessed something utterly different from earlier accounts of Iraqis cowering in battle.

This unit wanted to fight. Its soldiers believed in themselves. After each firefight, their confidence grew, not only in battle, but in the larger sense that maybe they were part of something bigger than their own survival.

They strove to perform as a professional army. Asked once about the Shi’ite-Sunni tensions that threaten to tear Iraq apart, Capt. Furat blushed and turned away before replying, “I’m an Iraqi.”

I never found out whether he was a Shi’ite or a Sunni. Once he gave me a St. Barbara medal, honoring a saint who is said to protect against explosions and artillery. I wondered whether he was a Christian or whether, like many Iraqi Muslims in the days before the rise of militant Islam, he simply paid his respects from time to time at small shrines on the grounds of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Perhaps now I will find out. Capt. Furat, 26, went home for Christmas Day to visit his family.

Insurgents attacked, killing a cousin and damaging his spine with a bullet through the abdomen. I am on my way back to Iraq, to an American field hospital in Balad, where I hope to find out much more about this soldier who may never walk again.

No one knows whether he will regain the vigor that won the overwhelming admiration of his men. But surely there will be a place in the new Iraq for men like Capt. Furat.

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