Hero in the Heat of Battle

Special forces Staff Col. Haidar Dhari Al Khayyoun has led men across Iraq

Unipath Staff

Col. Haider Al Khayyoun’s Soldiers had just rescued a squadron of their comrades besieged by Daesh fighters in Ramadi.

He barely had time to relish news of the relief force’s successful mission when an enemy bullet punched a hole between two vertebrae in his neck.

He collapsed to the ground unconscious. His men assumed Col. Haider — known as the Son of Sheikhs for his conspicuous bravery — was dead.

But he wasn’t.

“I was in treatment for a year,” Col. Haider said. “I was at risk of total paralysis because the bullet came so close to the spinal cord. But I wasn’t concerned about my position or anything but returning to my comrades on the front lines.”

Col. Haider is deputy commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service’s Basra Regiment. He hails from an environment that takes pride in its horsemen. He was raised on the customs and traditions native to the councils of the most venerable Iraqi tribes, where the scent of cardamom-perfumed coffee blended with the stories of heroism and honor that he overhead as a young child sitting with the city elders his father received as guests.

This beautiful world cultivated in him a love of the land and its people, and a dream of defending his homeland’s honor and dignity. He was able to achieve his childhood dream by graduating with honors from military college in 2001 and advancing through the ranks during his military career.

He became a platoon commander in the Fifth Division after 2004 and was promoted to company commander in the same unit, serving in the most dangerous areas for five years throughout the sectarian violence that devastated the country. It is a very difficult experience for a young officer to take over an area of operations riddled with terrorists and criminal syndicates, but he proved himself worthy, enforcing the rule of law and pursuing terrorists.

“In late 2004, the gangs of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi managed to take control of Baqubah, the largest city in Diyala province,” the colonel said. “My platoon was assigned, in the first joint mission with American forces, to expel al-Qaida terrorists from the area and capture the territory. Although I had taken command of the platoon only three months earlier, I was able to assess the Soldiers’ capabilities. We did a heroic job of ridding our sector of the fiercest foreign fighters, and we were honored by the American battalion commander.”

Col. Haider survived 12 hits by improvised explosive devices at the hands of terrorists, but his determination to continue the mission to extend the bounds of security and expel terrorism did not waver. He firmly believed that the population rejected violence but needed to be rescued from the clutches of terrorism.

“I was confident that gaining the trust of the population and working with them would enable us to expel al-Qaida and the terrorist militias,” Col. Haider said. “When the population saw that we were arresting anyone bearing arms without government authorization, regardless of ethnicity or sect, they began cooperating with us and supplying us with accurate information about the terrorists’ hideouts. This relationship enabled me to organize and train tribe members who showed interest in participating in the battle against the terrorists. Their units were later called Awakening Councils. We recruited  anyone who seemed genuinely patriotic and determined to get down into the trenches to fight on the right side.”

Col. Haider added: “His excellency the chief of the service personally monitored the selection of leaders and commanders and paid attention to the most promising ones. I received special attention from the chief for my Staff College thesis on the Counter-Terrorism Service, given that I faced a major challenge because of the high level of confidentiality surrounding the service’s activities and plans. He instructed the leadership to start helping me with the research topic, and thankfully my research was successful and adopted as a reference for subsequent research at the Staff College.”

The colonel’s nearly crippling wound occurred during critical fighting during the battles of Ramadi against Daesh in 2014.

Col. Haider recalled that, as an officer of the Basra Regiment, he helped mass his forces near a local stadium. The area was dubbed “Kandahar” because of the fierceness of the fighting and the heavy presence of foreign terrorist fighters during ferocious battles there in 2005-2006.

On the night of February 19, 2014, the enemy attacked one of the advance platoons of the regiment, using car bombs and suicide bombers. They surrounded one of the squads and injured its commander. Col. Haider sped relief forces to break the siege of the trapped squadron, swollen with pride for his men when he heard the message “All clear, sir” over the military radio.

“The Ramadi stadium battle was one of the fiercest. The enemy’s morale was good, and they controlled most of the surrounding areas,” the colonel said. “We had no backup forces or nearby supply lines, so we couldn’t rely on anything but the cohesion of our force and the courage of each of its members.”

After taking the bullet in the neck, the colonel was saved by the professional cohesion of his fighters who fought off Daesh counterattacks. From his forward headquarters, Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab Al-Saadi was following both the repulse of the enemy and the evacuation of Col. Haider. He was found to be alive but in critical condition. A helicopter raced him to a Baghdad hospital.

“Thank God, I returned to duty before the battles on Mosul’s right bank started,” he said. “We were involved in storming the old city and overthrowing the so-called caliphate by taking control of the Nuri Mosque area. My comrades in the service and I were in the vanguard of the forces that stormed Tal Afar and then Qa’im.”

After liberating Iraq’s cities, Col. Haider and his men barely had the chance to recover in their barracks from the stress of combat before orders arrived for a new mission. This time, during the demonstrations in Basra governorate, infiltrators were attempting to sabotage vital installations and foreign consulates in July 2018. The service’s chief ordered Col. Haider to Basra immediately.

“At that time, certain parties with their own interests were attempting to strike the American Consulate to sow confusion, sabotage the relationship between the United States and Iraq, and falsely portray the people of Basra’s peaceful demonstrations as violent,” he said. “We were immediately commissioned by his excellency the chief of the counter-terrorism service to provide protection for consular personnel during the evacuation of staff and shield them from armed threats. Despite the difficulties we faced and the direct and indirect threats from certain quarters, we rose to the occasion and foiled the schemes of those who don’t want Iraq and its people to prosper.”

By any measure, it was fortunate that Col. Haider was assigned to this sensitive mission in Basra, first, because he is a courageous and professional officer, and second, because he has a good reputation and commands tremendous respect in southern Iraq because of his family’s social standing among the surrounding tribes. He was able to serve as a buffer between angry demonstrators and the security forces, and he successfully prevented assaults on public property. In a situation where certain entities were trying to exploit the demonstrators’ anger for purposes of sabotage, Col. Haider held open bridges of trust and cooperation between citizens and the security forces.

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