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A brush with death in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq

A member of Iraq's Methboub family, which the Monitor has tracked since 2002, nearly lost his life in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in central Iraq.

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    Iraqi soldiers on the outskirts of the Shiite shrine city of Samarra in early August.
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Mohamed was playing dominoes with his Iraqi army unit in mid-June when the order came to join the front. Soon after he was seriously wounded in a bloody ambush by Sunni militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS). The events of the next hours and days bring home the ongoing costs and broad trauma of Iraq's struggle for stability.

Mohamed is a Methboub, the second oldest son in an Iraqi Shiite family the Monitor has followed since late 2002, opening a window into the lives of a typical Baghdad family caught up in the forces unleashed by the US-led invasion.  

Not long ago, the poverty-stricken family thought they were over the worst. For years their Baghdad district was rocked by car bombs as the capital reeled from vicious ethnic cleansing. The eldest son spent 2 1/2 years in jail after being picked up by a joint US-Iraqi patrol, unjustly held and tortured by Iraqi security forces. But there was also love, and finally freedom and hope. 

Then Mohamed was called to war, as IS fighters swept across the border from Syria to Iraq. 

His unit mustered at Taji barracks outside Baghdad, then joined up with US-trained Iraqi Special Force units at Balad base, and finally created a 50-vehicle convoy to reinforce Samarra, a Shiite shrine city north of Baghdad.

On June 14, Mohamed was driving one of five unarmored vehicles in the convoy, an Eldorado truck crammed with soldiers in the back. When they got to the town of Ishaki, a IS vehicle equipped with a heavy 12.7mm, which was concealed in a restaurant, broke through a glass window and began firing. Mohamed’s truck was the first to be hit, and a bullet fragment tore through him before exiting at his belly.

“I knew I was hit hard,” says Mohamed, whose stubble, youthful features and uneven teeth add meaning to a mischievous smile. “I saw I could move my leg, and put the pedal to the metal.”

Few survivors

Of the nine men in the truck, only Mohamed and two others survived – thanks to his presence of mind to gun it as other IS attackers emerged from nearby vineyards. The four other unarmored trucks were lost: Some men ran, others were killed, their bodies burned by IS militants. When Mohamed’s truck rejoined the line of vehicles, inching forward on punctured tires, the men jumped into a Humvee.

Mohamed, bleeding but unable to sit because of his wounds, stood in the turret gunner’s position for what would become a nine-hour battle. “We had to take control, or they would have killed us all with rocket-propelled grenades,” says Mohamed.

The other injured men gave Mohamed sweets and water to make up for his blood loss. But the vineyards made aiming difficult. “We could not see where they were, so would shoot 10 rounds in this direction, and 5 in that direction,” recalls Mohamed. 

He says the US-trained Special Forces took “a lot of martyrs” because they had deployed so far forward and were fearless. “We were a big and strong force,” says Mohamed. “We knew they had strong arms, but we weren’t thinking they would attack us like this. We were taken by surprise.... We had given our hopes to God.”

The convoy finally made it to Samarra and stopped to pay respects outside the Askari shrine there. The last thing Mohamed remembers was being loaded onto a military flight for Baghdad.

He tells his story from a Tehran hospital bed where two green ribbons – one for the Shiite saint Imam Hossein, another for Imam Ali – were tied to bedposts. He was sent there after surgeons in Baghdad stabilized him but were unable stem an infection. His family – alerted by phone by another survivor – had kept vigil at his hospital bed and at home.

“It seems that my family has been cursed because we are suffering from these events that have threatened my brothers’ lives,” says Amal Methboub, his sister and now a college student in northern Iraq. “We are praying every second for God so that Mohamed gets better.”

Treatment abroad

Mohamed was lucky. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers – most of them Shiites – have been massacred in towns captured by IS.

Mohamed is a survivor with a colorful history. He was held in Abu Ghraib prison during Saddam Hussein’s time after wrongfully being accused of car theft. In 2005 he operated a taxi until it was destroyed in an accident after a horse cart full of gasoline cans collided with a minibus. Mohamed recently married; this spring the newlyweds had their first baby.

Doctors in Iraq said treatment abroad would be required for his wounds, so the family turned to a hospital in Tehran. Estimated costs were far too high, but a Monitor reader offered to help.  Mohamed flew with his brother-in-law to Tehran. After his condition improved in early July, doctors operated again, and he strengthened. 

“My mother’s prayers are working,” said Amal of Mrs. Methboub's vigil in Baghdad. 

But the healing process proved to be painful, and slow. So the family appealed to Iraqi officials to send Mohamed abroad again, to complete his recovery. He left Aug. 31 for a hospital in New Delhi, India, escorted by his older brother.

“After so many attempts, after my mother went to so many people in the government crying and begging,” says Amal, “they finally gave permission to travel to India to finish his healing process.”

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