Iraqi village aided by US soldiers endures ISIS invasion
(Second of two parts. Read Part One: Rumor of Iraq village’s death left US veterans searching for answers.)
NEAR QAYARA AIRFIELD WEST, Iraq — A grim account arose this past summer of Islamic State captors wiping out an entire village here as penalty for their ties to U.S. troops.
Known as Jaddalah Ismail, the tiny community had been an early bright spot in the U.S. military’s post-invasion rebuilding efforts in 2003, but word of its supposed eradication early in ISIS’ rampage through Iraq pained soldiers who’d deployed here.
“We [were] sent to war to win ‘hearts and minds’ and we actually [did] that at the eventual cost of an entire village,” said Gabriel Morris via email in August. As a specialist at nearby Qayara Airfield West in 2003, he was among the first U.S. soldiers to visit the village.
In earlier attacks that nearly bookend the U.S. occupation, insurgents killed a translator who’d worked for Morris’ battalion and the village sheikh, a doctor. The villager’s wholesale slaughter, though, would be an especially chilling example of the price Iraqis have paid at the hands of insurgents.
Except in this case it didn’t happen. The reports had it all wrong.
In early September, when Stars and Stripes visited Jaddalah, as it’s called for short, men worked on a house on one side of the village. On the other, a half-dozen children played in a dirt lot under the watchful eyes of a few men leaning against a shaded mud-brick wall.
Hussein Ismail, 45, brother of the slain village leader who’d first sought the Americans’ help, welcomed his guests with candies, tea and bowls of cookies from a recent holiday celebration.
With few exceptions, the hearts and minds the soldiers had struggled to win here were still intact, said Ismail, a tall, jovial man who is now Jaddalah’s sheikh.
“Only four people were killed,” he said. “They were all in the Iraqi security forces.”
A feeling of relief
Morris, now a contractor training troops in the U.S., was uplifted when he heard the news on social media.
“A feeling of relief has fallen over me,” he said on Twitter. “With the madness of the world today, to have this moment of happiness has made my day.”
It was a far different story than he’d been relayed months earlier in tweets from Fred Wellman, his old battalion operations officer.
A translator named Osama Saado, whom Wellman had worked with and was his only living link to Jaddalah at the time, had reported that ISIS militants raided the village in August 2014, stole valuables and executed the men, women and children before burning down a U.S.-built clinic.
Upon hearing that in June, Wellman tweeted that he was “in shock at the brutality of war” and knew “the price we pay in blood; ours and theirs.” Many had died over the years, but in this case, the truth appeared to be among the only casualties.
“I guess it’s true that first reports are usually wrong,” he said on Twitter when he learned the truth last month. “I am happy they were wrong.”
After fleeing insurgent threats 2004 and still afraid for his life in Iraq’s relatively safe Kurdish region, Saado had been too scared to return to the village or venture near it, but he spoke to Ismail. It’s not clear which of the two had gotten the details so wrong in that conversation, or how.
“Some people like to mislead the truth,” Saado said via Facebook messenger. “And make mountain from hill.”
From flight to fight
It was true that nearby villages had allied with the militants, Ismail said. They’d tried to recruit Jaddalah’s residents, who are Sunni Arabs, but they and a nearby Kurdish settlement refused.
“They’re the worst people,” Ismail said of ISIS, calling them criminals, thieves and killers.
Many here fled to their tribal homeland of Tikrit until ISIS was driven from Q-West more than a year ago. Not only did they escape ISIS occupation, most of the men later joined a militia group to fight the extremists and received training from a new crop of American troops at Q-West.
In the sheikh’s living room, a cousin showed off a smartphone photo of himself standing beside a technical vehicle and holding a new-looking AK-47.
“A gift from America,” said Abu Ahmed Albzouni, pointing to the assault rifle.
It was a different kind of gift than the Americans provided when Wellman and Lt. Col. Kellie Rourke, then a captain, had led civil affairs efforts around Q-West in 2003. They’d built infrastructure and invested in small businesses to sustain needy families.
Their divisional commander, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, had hoped such work in northern Iraq would win local support, and it seemed to work for a time.
Back then they had hoped to sway locals from aiding attacks on the airfield, but so many years later, Jaddalah’s men claimed they’d become the troops’ active defenders. When ISIS took a village about 10 miles east of here in July, they went to block a potential militant advance toward Q-West.
“The American base is very important,” Ismail said. There, the U.S. and Iraqi forces had staged the campaign to liberate Mosul and the rest of Nineveh province. “It’s a priority.”
‘Our dear friend’
The villagers not only recalled the previous generation of Americans who’d been based there, they cherished their memory and had kept a trove of old photos both in loose stacks and an album the Americans had given them, along with certificates of appreciation, random documents and IDs and 10 Army challenge coins.
They spoke soldiers’ names fondly — Petraeus, Wellman, Rourke and others — as they flipped through old pictures, recalling weddings and holiday feasts they’d spent together.
“Oh, Maj. Wellman,” said Ismail, drawing one of the photos from a pile. In it, a young Army officer stood next to his brother, the sheikh known to the Americans as Dr. Mohammad. He repeated the officer’s name and sighed. “Our dear friend.”
Wellman had helped raise thousands of pounds of donated goods from the U.S. public — school supplies, medicine and more — that were distributed in the area.
“The Iraqi government would never do it,” Ismail said of the Americans’ efforts.
One thing the Baathists did, which the U.S. troops couldn’t figure out, was distribute seeds to rural farmers, Rourke said by phone in September.
But the troops paved roads the Iraqi government seemed to have ignored for decades. The British built the village’s only bridge in the 1930s, Dr. Mohammad once told Wellman. The American said he hoped Iraqis in the future might recall what the U.S. built.
A ‘golden age’
While many traces of America’s largesse have been marred or utterly erased by the ISIS fight, the clinic in Jaddalah was still standing, though ISIS had stolen the donated medical equipment, fixtures and supplies. It was shuttered, with no one to staff it since insurgents posing as patients had killed Dr. Mohammad there in 2011.
“I was going to work here because we need a clinic,” said Hachim Ismail, another of Dr. Mohammad’s brothers. “Not after they killed my brother.”
Next door, a schoolhouse was still standing, as were 34 others the Americans had built in the area, Hussein Ismail said, adding that they were all still operating.
Classrooms were easily built, Rourke said, but hard to fill with students. Jaddalah had welcomed education early on and proved its worth to the neighboring villages, she said.
Back in his home, Hussein held up an old photo of children at the grade school’s desks.
“These children are all in high school now,” he said.
That school is an hour away over miles of rough roads. Maybe the Americans could build one closer, he hoped.
Morris had hoped his efforts alongside Iraqis would bring them freedom and democracy. Though he has doubts about that now, he said he was still proud of what he’d done for the people there.
But even as the U.S.-backed military campaign against ISIS nears an end and a shift to recovery operations, American troops won’t be rebuilding Iraqi communities, said Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS coalition.
Much of the U.S. public has soured on such investments in shoring up shaky foreign countries.
Ismail longed to rekindle things with U.S. troops at Q-West, like the old days.
“We want to get relations back,” he said. “When the Americans were here, it was a golden age.”