Taming Iraq's Triangle of Death

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Jim Frederick for TIME

Iraqi Army Brigadier General Ali Jassim Mohammed Hassen al-Frejee

"A lot of officers refused to come here," says Iraqi Army Brigadier General Ali Jassim Mohammed Hassen al-Frejee, describing how in November 2004 he became the battalion commander of the area surrounding Lutufiyah, a town 18 miles south of Baghdad that had become one of Iraq's worst nests of insurgent activity and sectarian violence. "It was a dark time."

Featuring one of the most volatile social and religious dynamics in the country, the area is dotted with Shi'a urban centers surrounded by Sunni farming communities. The Sunni tribes, many of whom were favored under Saddam's regime, became early allies of al-Qaeda in Iraq, while the Shi'as increasingly aligned themselves with Moqtada al-Sadr, his Mahdi Army and its many more extreme offshoots. Two major highways from the south bisect the region, making it a favored way-station for anyone ferrying money, fighters or weapons into or out of Baghdad. Locals were often forced to join a side or suffer kidnapping, extortion or murder as the area frequently broke out into low-grade civil war.

But after nearly four years of continuous fighting, the area is now one of the safest in the country as a result of increasingly sophisticated counterinsurgency techniques and close cooperation between the Iraqi and American armies. The success here may be a model for Iraqi-U.S. Army cooperation in the future, and many American commanders in the region attribute a large part of the success to "General Ali's" skill as a professional soldier. "He has been here from the beginning," says Lieutenant Colonel William Zemp, the U.S. commander of a unit that works daily with General Ali's men. "The pacification of this area is his struggle, it is his story."

Promoted to general in May 2007, Ali now commands the 7,000 soldiers of the 25th Brigade of the Iraqi 6th Army Division, who defend the 20-mile band south of Baghdad between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Although the Iraqi Army is plagued by charges that many units are not fit for battle, U.S. officers say that is not the case with the 25th Brigade. "Are they ever going to maneuver and fire like American troops? If that is your yardstick, then probably not for a very long time," says Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Rohling, who is in charge of a U.S. battalion on the western side of General Ali's region. "But they are competent, they fight, and their first loyalty is to the Iraqi Army. Plus, they are far better at things like searching houses, finding hiding places and interrogating detainees than we are."

Not yet 40 years old, the chain-smoking Ali grew up in Baghdad, the third-generation son of a military family. Graduating in the top 10 of the Iraqi military college in 1988, he fought against coalition forces as the executive officer of a commando battalion around Baghdad's airport during the invasion of 2003, before quitting on April 9 as the Iraqi army crumbled. Rejoining the army in March 2004, he quickly established himself as one of the rising stars of the new military due to his aggressive instincts ("My tactics are simple," he says. "Whenever we see the enemy, we go after them.") and his uncompromising belief that the future of Iraq must be non-secular. A Shi'a, he is married to a Sunni, and one of his sons is named Omar, a distinctively Sunni name. Accusations of pro-Shi'a bias have plagued the Army (which is predominantly Shi'a) since its post-Saddam reconstruction, but Ali says he does not tolerate any favoritism among his soldiers.

He bristles at one American-supported strategy. Much of the peace in the area also stems from the deployment of the "Sons of Iraq," armed Sunni security groups funded by the U.S. Ali grudgingly acknowledges their role. However, even the name makes him testy. "I hate this name. Are we not all Sons of Iraq? I call them volunteers. They have helped securing the peace, yes, but there is only one army and one police force and at some point, these people will have to become a part of these forces."

His own mainly Shi'a units demonstrated a loyalty to secularist ideals during the Sadr Uprising instigated by the Mahdi Army that engulfed several cities in late March. While many Iraqi soldiers in Basra and Baghdad either refused to take up arms against other Shi'as or even handed over their weapons to them, General Ali's soldiers in Mahmudiya, the largest city in the area, stuck through five days of heavy fighting that killed five Iraqi soldiers and 25 insurgents. Ali threw approximately 1,000 Iraqi soldiers into the battle, devised and directed their missions to clear the city, and visited the battlefronts repeatedly to provide firm leadership presence. "This was Shi'a soldiers fighting Shi'a militias, and the soldiers never wavered," says General Ali. Colonel Zemp says that while the U.S. Army provided intelligence, air support, and 150 reinforcement troops, the Iraqi Army spearheaded the effort. "The battle was General Ali's crowning achievement so far. It showed both Shi'a extremists and the people of the city that the Iraqi Army is not just the area's legitimate authority in theory, but that it is in charge in reality."

A major downside of General Ali's non-partisan stance is that he makes enemies from many parties. When, in April, the residents of Mahmudiya began uncovering mass graves of dozens of mostly Sunni bodies, a television station with ties to the Sunni Islamic Party accused General Ali of having a hand in the killings. General Ali's troops had raided the Islamic Party's Mahmudiya headquarters earlier in the year, uncovering a cache of weapons and explosives. A committee appointed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki exonerated the general. An internal U.S. Army report similarly concluded that there was no evidence of Iraqi Army involvement and that the Mahdi Army was most likely responsible.

Threats in the city are far from fully quelled. Every day, joint Iraqi and U.S. Army patrols gather intelligence and raid suspected insurgents' homes. Recent tips suggest that Shi'a extremists are planning another armed attack on the city or high-profile assassinations of city leaders.

General Ali makes no excuses for being a patriot and a pragmatist. While he goes out of his way to praise his U.S. co-commanders and their soldiers — and to thank the families of America who have sent their sons to fight and die in an unpopular foreign war — he ultimately sees America's input as a means to an end. "I am an Iraqi," he says. "I want Iraq to be independent and strong. And the best way for me to help make that happen is to work with the coalition forces. That is the best path for the future I want for Iraq."