The final hours of one Iraqi soldier may seem a small thing against the backdrop of over 150,000 people killed in the Iraq war since 2003. But his story offers a window on the incompetence of Iraq's military leadership as it has lost control of large chunks of its territory this month, and on the enormous personal grief being experienced by families across the country.
The dead soldier - his family's name is being withheld at their request - was killed as his unit rushed north to bolster Iraqi forces that were being driven from one defeat to the next by a combination of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a jihadi group that was spawned by the old Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Sunni Arab Iraqi fighters fed up with what they view as central government and Shiite oppression.
But they never reached their destination, as his father recounts.
The first phone call came at midnight, ringing on his dusty brick-red Nokia phone.
“Dad, I want to see you,” his soldier son said. Sunni militants had been advancing for days across western and central Iraq. Now the son’s Special Forces unit was being sent north to reinforce the city of Samarra from the Shiite shrine city of Karbala.
On the phone was a picture of his son, a handsome 22-year-old who wore a smile and stylish gelled hair. The boy was determined to be an Iraqi patriot.
But the father – a veteran officer with decades of war experience who still works for the Iraqi military – couldn’t get to the Iraqi base before the unit pressed on at first light.
The phone rang again at 8:30am. The convoy was 20 miles north of Baghdad at Tarmiya and had hit a roadside bomb. The son was fine; one wounded.
“My son, I don’t need your salary, for you to do this job,” the father said. “It would be shameful for me not to defend my country,” the son replied. “If I withdraw, people will say Ali was a coward. If I die, this is an honor for me, and also for you. And if I live, it will also be with honor.”
He was Sunni, like his parents – and like the ISIS jihadis. But he had also married a Shiite, which isn't uncommon in Iraq.
Perhaps ironically, the son and father both were loyal to the Iraqi armed forces, defending a Shiite-led government whose exclusionary policies have help provoke a wider Sunni revolt.
The last phone calls came at 10:30, and would last 50 excruciating minutes.
The son first spoke to his mother, who passed out at news that the 14-vehicle convoy had been ambushed at the village of Ishaki on the outskirts of Samarra. Then he called his father.
“We are now under heavy attack,” the son said. “I heard shooting, heavy, heavy shooting,” says the father, sorrow thickening his deeply sun-kissed face at the retelling of these events.
The ISIS fighters had set up concrete roadblocks to divert the Iraqi military convoy off the main road. The convoy was ordered to wait for bomb disposal units to clear the way – which was surely mined – but for some reason pressed ahead anyway, right into an ambush.
At least ten roadside bombs went off, crippling all but three of the vehicles at a stroke, as .50-caliber heavy machine guns opened up from several protected firing positions, and snipers targeted those who tried to flee.
And as the chaos erupted, the son called home. Using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece, he brought all the drama, the fear and the agony of this frontline fight – and the fate of his unit – right to the heart of his family. Friends soon gathered.
They heard urgent calls for support, and desperate pleas: “Where are the reinforcements?”
In their armored vehicle, the soldiers had limited vision. So the son – the youngest in the unit – was ordered to pop up to the gun position. Ready to launch grenades, he was instead shot immediately in the shoulder and fell back into the vehicle, unconscious.
“Ali! Ali! Ali!” the family heard, as the soldiers tried to give him aid. They thought he was already dead, as the ISIS fighters appeared to close in. The other soldiers fired repeatedly to keep them back; some tried to get away, and run into a nearby ditch.
But the son then woke up, surprising the soldiers still around him. He told his father he did not have enough ammunition, that the Sunni fighters were close. The father told him to say sacred words, often repeated by Muslims about to die. But the son had more to say.
“Please forgive me, Father, if ever I made mistakes,” recalls the father of his son’s last words, wiping tears from his eyes. “Promise me you will take care of my children.”
The son was again called to the hatch, to man the gun. Almost immediately, he was shot in the head and died.
For a moment, says the father, the stunned listeners heard only silence.
And then they heard the jihadis move in, chanting “Alahu Akbar! Alahu Akbar!” (God is great), as they took control of the vehicles, and set fire to them, burning the bodies. It was three days before the son’s remains returned home.
“He was not greedy, or looking for money is his life,” recalls the father of his son. “He never joined any political party or was sectarian – he was only patriotic. He makes me stand proud, with my head up.” Eleven men died, and every single survivor was wounded, says the father, who spoke to some of the wounded men who came to the funeral.
But the son’s loss did not come as a total surprise. Two days before his death, the father dreamed that he had seen his son’s black death banner strung up. And just the day before, the son had spoken with his mother. He told her he might be a martyr, and said: “Don’t shout when you see my body; don’t scream. Be happy.”