For Iraqi family, son's role in battling ISIS speaks to hopes for national unity

A soldier's life and his death in Mosul is a profile of Iraqi determination to fight ISIS, and a lesson in why even a Shiite from southern Iraq is willing to shed blood to liberate a predominantly Sunni city to the north.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Children play beside four banners of Iraqi soldiers "martyred" in battles against the Islamic State, in Al-Diwaniyah, Iraq, on Nov. 7.

The last moments of the Iraqi special forces officer came in the nondescript outskirts of Mosul, amid tight house-to-house combat against jihadists of the so-called Islamic State.

In one scene, a BBC Arabic television crew captures the hulking sergeant-major of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Force (ICTF) kicking through the door of a house. In the next, the officer steps past metal doors onto the street, barks a warning, and turns left.

Five seconds later a car bomb detonates, its fiery blast sweeping over the wall,in a flash adding Sgt. Maj. Haydar Fakhri Harbi and three other Iraqi soldiers to the ever-growing list of martyrs of the Mosul fight. 

“He was brave. He wasn’t afraid,” says the soldier’s father, Fakhri Harbi Fihan, surrounded by family at home in Diwaniyah, in southern Iraq, after the final funeral feast in early November.

“My son sacrificed himself for the sake of the country, for the land and for honor, and for the holy shrines,” says Fakhri. “He kept saying he should go until the last victory … that Iraq is strong enough, that IS can’t win the battle.”

Badly wounded three times during a decade in uniform – including a sniper’s bullet through the cheek – Haydar’s warrior life and his death in Mosul is a profile of Iraqi determination to fight IS, and a lesson in why even a Shiite from southern Iraq is willing to shed blood to liberate a predominantly Sunni city to the north.

It’s a high price for his family, but one that they say encapsulates a desire to keep Iraq unified, to overcome sectarian divisions, and to rid Iraq of IS and solve its own problems – the opposite of the IS worldview of sectarian war that casts Iraq’s Shiite majority as evil infidels.

“There’s an awakening of consciousness to regain the country from them,” says Chessab Abdallah Gomar, a relative of Haydar. “We are suffering from this disease, this so-called IS. We hope God will help us…to prevail.”

“Yes, it becomes a push for unity of Iraq again; we have one people,” says Fakhri, ticking off all of Iraq’s sects engaged in the Mosul fight. “As long as Haydar died for the sake of the country, we are proud.”

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The family of Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force Sgt. Maj. Haydar Fakhri Harbi mourns his death in Mosul by an Islamic State suicide car bomb, in their family home in Al-Diwaniyah, Iraq, on Nov. 7. His father, Fakhri Harbi Fihan, is at left.

A fighter's town 

Diwaniyah is no stranger to martyrs. The dusty streets outside the family home are dotted with black-banner funeral announcements and posters of young men wearing Iraqi military uniforms, or those of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces militia – all of them killed in anti-IS campaigns.

This region has been renowned for its fighters since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Fakhri was a warrant officer then. Mr. Chessab also was a soldier, and lost two brothers in the war. A third was executed by Saddam Hussein’s security forces after the 1991 Shiite uprising.

Diwaniyah history, in fact, includes a key role in the 1921 Iraqi revolt against British occupation. And that military pedigree was passed on to Haydar.

“Always he wanted to be a fighter, and he participated in all the missions against IS,” says his father, listing one anti-IS battle after another, from the Baiji oil fields to Ramadi, Hit, and Fallujah. “Every time he went he said he wanted to be a martyr.”

But Haydar exhibited particular grit. He joined the ICTF in 2006 and received US training in Jordan and Baghdad. In 2007 he got a bullet in the belly while fighting in Najaf.

Last year, during the battle for Ramadi, he got shrapnel in his knee from an IS suicide bomb that killed two comrades. Later in Ramadi, an IS sniper’s bullet entered Haydar’s cheek and exited his neck. But even that did not deter him.

As Haydar recovered, cousin Ghassan Hamid visited him in the hospital.

“If I wake up again, I won’t quit fighting,” Haydar vowed to his cousin. And sure enough, the officer was soon back with his unit, despite the injuries. Such actions helped boost the morale of younger recruits, whom he helped to train, fellow officers say.

“A guy like Haydar gives us motivation and inspiration to keep going,” says Mighdam Hossein Alwan, a warrant officer from Haydar’s unit. On his cellphone is a picture of ICTF from one deployment, filling the inside of a C-130 transport plane. Half of them are now killed or wounded, says Mighdam. “We are expecting at any moment we will be hit, by a sniper or a rocket,” he says.

“When there are some young guys who join the ICTF, who have a weak heart to endure the heavy responsibility of being ICTF, we help him overcome the tension and the stress,” says Mighdam. 

Haydar played a key role.

“He was a great man, who would lead raids by himself, a man with experience more than those who are fresh blood,” says Mighdam. “He is brutal, brave, very much a hero.” 

Haydar’s brother Ali Fakhri remembers how Haydar could sometimes be a bully at school, because of his large size, and especially go after anyone who teased him.

“Most of the time he spent in the war zone, sometimes 20 or 30 days at a time,” says Ali. “We are not really feeling he is far from us, we feel he is with us. Everything we need, he solves our problems.”

His father said he called home from the frontline “every minute,” and said he often saw Haydar on TV. “Every time I asked, he kept calming me down, saying, ‘All is well. Everyone used to love him.”

A family left behind

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The family of Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force Sgt. Maj. Haydar Fakhri Harbi hosts a feast Nov. 7 in a funeral tent in Al-Diwaniyah, Iraq, as they mourns his death in Mosul by an Islamic State suicide car bomb.

Haydar leaves behind his widow, as well as two sons and a daughter. The oldest is fresh-faced Karrar, who is 13. 

“He always took us out; he loved me so much,” says Karrar. “I’m really proud, he was fighting for our country. I want to become like my father.”

Karrar and his siblings have more detail than most Iraqi children who lost their fathers in war. The video of the attack showed their father’s bravery, while another records his funeral, with throngs of people clogging the street and churning up dust as his coffin is brought home. Yet more video was taken at the burial the next day, in the sprawling Shiite cemetery in the shrine city of Najaf. 

The funeral was made “like a wedding, a celebration like he won the battle,” says Mr. Chessab, his relative.

“We are proud of our martyr,” says a fellow officer at Haydar’s funeral, Sgt. Maj. Mohammed Karim Sarhan. “We hope we will clear every inch of Iraq from IS, from these rats.” 

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