The Iraqi Fighter Who's Either a War Hero or a War Criminal

The Iraqi Fighter Who's Either a War Hero or a War Criminal

By Austin Bodetti


Because Iraq is still a complicated tinderbox. 

By Austin Bodetti

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and other world leaders. 

In Iraq’s crowded skies, the horizon shifted from blue to smoky gray above Fallujah, the city of mosques. For three months in spring 2016, a motley coalition of commandos, policemen, militiamen and soldiers besieged the city. They shelled it with artillery batteries and rocket launchers, starving thousands of ISIS fighters and Sunni civilians inside.

On May 22, the Third Battle of Fallujah began as the Federal Police and the Iraqi Special Operations Forces crossed city limits. With American air support, they reclaimed the city by June 28. One officer in the Federal Police, Abu Dergham al-Maturi, earned praise for his bravery and heroism on the battlefield. The Interior Ministry promoted him to brigadier general, the latest title on his curriculum vitae. Before this? Lawman, revolutionary and warlord.

Al-Maturi represents a set of contradictions. Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority, ruling from Baghdad, considers him a hero for defending the nation against ISIS. The Sunni Muslim minority, however, blames him for war crimes in Fallujah. The U.S., meanwhile, should be concerned about al-Maturi’s rise: In addition to a dubious record on human rights, he’s closely linked to Iran, a country that has long tried to subvert the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Gettyimages 483398220

Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade take part in a military parade.

Source Haidar HamdaniAFP/Getty Images

Born several decades ago to a modest Shia family near the southern city of Basra, al-Maturi came to despise the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein for its abuse toward Shias. He joined the Badr Corps, a Shia revolutionary movement backed by Iran and opposing Hussein, in 1982. He was a guerrilla, operating along the Iraq-Iran border, explains Hussam al-Mayahi, an acquaintance of al-Maturi’s — who couldn’t be reached for a personal interview despite multiple messages to his cellphone and representatives. With the fall of Hussein and the establishment of a Shia-led government in 2003, the Badr Corps rebranded itself as the Badr Organization, a militia-political party. And, al-Mayahi says, al-Maturi became a lieutenant colonel in the Federal Police, a law-enforcement agency meant to bridge the gap between the metropolitan police and the regular army. The Interior Minister, who controlled the Federal Police, was pro-Badr, whose nepotism ensured not only that al-Maturi got a high rank but also an important command: the 5th Brigade. 

The Federal Police leadership have become highly compromised.

Patrick Martin

A short but strong man with a graying mustache and thinning hair, al-Maturi leads his fighters from the front. He has sustained several minor injuries in combat, including Fallujah, where his take-charge style earned him the admiration of fellow police officers and his subordinates. Al-Maturi has built a cult of personality, with several Facebook pages extolling his military exploits. But al-Maturi’s actions in Fallujah warrant consternation too. His links to a militia accused of war crimes have earned criticism from many Iraqis, including Fallujah’s Sunnis. The spotlight, it turns out, isn’t always flattering.

During the Iraq War, al-Maturi kept a low profile, even as the Interior Ministry was well-known as a front organization for Badr and other Shia militias. Militiamen wearing uniforms with the insignias of the Federal Police or the Interior Ministry disappeared, executed, kidnapped and tortured Sunni civilians during the worst days. Human Rights Watch condemned the Badr-linked death squads in 2009 and again in 2014. He, a prominent official in Badr and the Interior Ministry, likely participated in these abuses.

And then there is Iran, which has opposed American intervention in the Middle East; Iran and the U.S. have long competed for influence over the Iraqi Security Forces, and it looks as though al-Maturi’s allegiance lies with one of the U.S.’s longtime rivals in the region — he even went to Syria to support the Assad government on the Iranians’ behalf.

The collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces and rise of ISIS in June 2014 led al-Maturi to a transition. “He saw that the Federal Police then lacked the potential to face ISIS,” said Ajeel, so al-Maturi and his fighters headed toward the Shia militias, generally regarded as unruly but effective fighters in the campaign against ISIS. After the Iraqi Security Forces’ implosion, the militias — many armed and funded by Iran — helped defend Baghdad and the rest of Iraq from falling to ISIS, a specious change. On social media, 5th Brigade fighters identify as militiamen first, police second.

Al-Maturi’s switch from the police to the militias shattered the already weak separation of powers between the branches of the Iraqi Security Forces. Today, no one, not even the Federal Police, understands his role in the command hierarchy. Not even those who fought alongside him, such as General Muhammad al-Baidani, a policeman who met al-Maturi while in the Shia militias. Al-Baidani, suspicious, asked the police who al-Maturi was. The answer: just a former officer from the Interior Ministry. Karim al-Nuri, a Badr spokesman, told a similar story: a Federal Police officer who briefly sojourned with the Badr between stints in the police.

The intersection of the Federal Police and Badr Organization shows “that the Federal Police leadership have become highly compromised by Iranian proxy actors and are increasingly unreliable and unresponsive to the Iraqi chain of command,” said Patrick Martin, an analyst from the Institute for the Study of War, over email. Case in point: The Iraqi 5th Division reports to the Shia militias, not the government — the same militias who killed Sunni civilians until the government ordered them away from the city limits.

But that hasn’t stopped the enigmatic al-Maturi, says Muhammad al-Issawi, an activist from Fallujah. “Al-Maturi’s forces are burning civilian houses in Fallujah,” al-Issawi said of the 5th Brigade.