The Two Deaths of Crazy Fakhir

Former Iraqi commander cleared booby-traps—until it finally killed him


Many Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have died fighting Islamic State militants this year. But the news of Col. Fakhir Barwary’s death on Nov. 11 held special significance.

That’s because Barwary’s death has been reported on two separate occasions. The media wrongly declared him dead in 2008 following a bomb blast outside Mosul.

In fact, he’d only lost a leg—and even that didn’t end his soldiering days.

After the fall of Ba’athist regime in 2003, many Peshmerga joined the Iraqi army in order to help protect civilians. Fakhir Barwary became a battalion commander with the Iraqi army in 2006.

He often volunteered to help out with ordinance-disposal jobs. It wasn’t his job, but he did have some experience neutralizing explosives. It also bothered Barwary that mines and improvised bombs claimed the lives of so many American soldiers and Iraqi troops and civilians.

In one instance, just seconds after Barwary disconnected wires from a cell phone detonator, the phone began ringing in his hand. It was the insurgents trying to detonate the bomb.

Barwary answered. The insurgents were silent on the other end.

Between 2006 and 2008, Barwary successfully disabled hundreds of bombs. The new Iraqi army didn’t have an awards system in place. But American commanders in Mosul were so impressed with Barwary that they recommended him for a U.S. Army commendation medal with a V decoration for valor.

At left, Barwary visiting a store in Mosul. At right, Barwary receives an award from American officers. Shinwar Kamal courtesy photos

Lt. Col. Eric Price, the commander of the 8th Military Transition team in Mosul, told reporters at the time that the U.S. Army doesn’t often award medals to foreign troops. But the Americans were especially impressed with Barwary’s courage.

The Americans began calling him “Crazy Fakhir” for his willingness to face any danger.

Iraqi civilians and officials were equally fond of Barwary. He was famous for removing the bombs terrorists planted in Iraqi homes. But his fame wasn’t without consequences. While both Americans and the citizens of Mosul loved him, insurgents hated him.

Militants tried no fewer than five times to assassinate Barwary. He escaped unscathed until June 28, 2008, when a bomb exploded unexpectedly. He’d gone to defuse an explosive device, without realizing that the terrorists had buried a second remote-controlled munition under his feet.

The insurgents were ecstatic. They boasted on jihadi Websites that they’d killed Crazy Fakhir. The news even made its way into some international media outlets.

But he wasn’t dead.

The explosion took his right leg and partially smashed his right shoulder, but he soon told Kurdish reporters from his hospital bed that he was very much alive. There’s video of the aftermath—warning, it’s graphic.

“I know that my enemy, the terrorists are very happy, because they wounded me,” Barwary said. “Therefore, I hope to go back to my work very soon.”

Kurdish director Shinwar Kamal had covered Barwary between 2006 and 2010 and even made a documentary film about him called Jiyan bo Jiyane—meaning “Life for Life”—that aired on Kurdistan TV.

After that, there was little news about Barwary. But he resurfaced when Islamic State militants invaded Kurdish territory this year. Whenever Peshmerga liberated an area from the militants, photos emerged on social media—posted by Peshmerga fighters and by Barwary himself—showing Crazy Fakhir disabling bombs.

“When Islamic State attacked Kurdistan and many Peshmerga had been killed because of bombs, I remembered Fakhir,” Kamal told War is Boring, “[I] thought if he could be there, he would be able to disrupt those bombs.”

When Peshmerga fighters liberated Hassan Sham village near Mosul Dam, Kamal went there to film it.

“I saw Fakhir there,” Kamal recalled. “I asked him what he was doing there. He said that he volunteered to work again. He had a prosthetic leg and came to help Peshmerga and civilians.”

Kamal decided to make another documentary about Barwary. Kamal said that top Kurdish military officials repeatedly asked Fakhir to stop working.

They insisted that Barwary had already retired and had sacrificed enough for the Kurds. But Barwary insisted that he should be there—that he would be ashamed to ignore the war.

According to Kamal, Barwary was a celebrity on the front line. Whenever they arrived in a liberated civilian area, Peshmerga would rush to greet him and point out bombs he should clear.

The civilians and Peshmerga knew Barwary by his car.

Kamal filming Barwary disabling an Islamic State bomb. Shinwar Kamal courtesy photo

“He was a very brave man, and he loved to sacrifice for his people and land,” Kamal said. “He said that he was afraid of only two things. One was to die in his bed and the other was to be captured by the enemy.”

On Nov. 11, Barwary and two of his nephews were trying to clear a civilian’s house of booby traps in a village near Zummar. A bomb exploded. The blast killed him, both nephews and the home’s owner.

Three nights before his death, Barwary confided in Kamal that he suspected this would be his last war. “I will be martyred this time,” he told the filmmaker. “But for God’s sake, proceed and complete the film—and document my funeral, too.”

News of Barwary’s death spread quickly on social media and in the Kurdish news. Writers and poets throughout Kurdistan eulogized him. Some asked to raise a statue for Fakhir. Others praised his courage and heroics.

Ali Tatar, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party leadership council, honored Fakhir in a Facebook post.

“Although he lost one leg, he never wanted to stay away from serving his country as a Peshmerga,” Tatar wrote. “In 2009, Fakhir said in a meeting that he still has two working hands and one leg to walk on to stay with Peshmerga forces.”

Fakhir Barwary was 39. He leaves behind eight children.