Inside a Baghdad Hostage Rescue

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Late Wednesday morning in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood, 15 Iraqi soldiers on a cordon-and-search operation suddenly had a question for their commander, identified by the U.S. military only as Colonel Mohammed: Should they break down the second door of a house they had been ordered to search? According to U.S. military sources, Col. Mohammed, who as an officer in Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army during the Gulf War in 1991 shot down a US F-15, barely hesitated: "Yes, of course break it down!" The colonel then returned to what he had been doing: passing out American-provided crayons, stuffed animals and backpacks to the local kids. As his troops rushed the second door, two men opened up with AK-47s from the other side, but Col. Mohammed's men broke through the doorway and wrestled the fighters to the floor.

Inside, they had another surprise: just a few steps away, hidden under a blanket — where he had been told to stay and act like a sick female — and dressed in a long Arab man's shirt, was Australian hostage Douglas Wood, who had been held by an Iraqi insurgent group since May 1. Wood, who is married and resides in California, was stunned by his rescue. He told a U.S. solider that reached him minutes later: "I haven’t smiled in 45 days." Col. Mohammed, who accepted several hugs from Wood, congratulated his troops and told them, "You gave Mr. Wood his life back." That was no exaggeration: Wood had seen three other hostages executed in front of him in the course of his captivity.

Although the capability of Iraqi forces to operate independently of their U.S. counterparts to secure the country has been the focus of intense debate, a U.S. Army adviser to Col. Mohammed’s unit, from the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Iraqi Army, says this one is ready to roll. "These troops are highly competent and this operation showed that,” said Capt. Randy Green, 41. “Even Mr. Wood kept telling me how professional the Iraqis were and how they treated his hostage takers with restraint." According to U.S. military officials, Iraqi security forces are taking a much more prominent role in similar operations across the country, although they admit that few of the 170,000 Iraqi security forces trained so far can match the capabilities of Col. Mohammed's men. For Doug Wood, they were up to the job today.