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Iraq's youngest general leads by example

By Arwa Damon

Brig. Gen. General Samon Talabani recently chased down attacking insurgents.


Armed Conflict

BAQUBA, Iraq (CNN) -- Brig. Gen. General Samon Talabani, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the New Iraqi Army's 5th Division, huddles with his senior officers over a map of the Baquba area, discussing their upcoming mission.

At 38, General Talabani is the youngest general in the history of the Iraqi army. He's a slight man, with a mischievous demeanor, silent determination and a way with words.

"I am an Iraqi Kurdish soldier in the New Iraqi Army," he said. "I am a soldier, I never work like general with my soldier, nothing is between me and my soldier." It's not bluster.

Last week Talabani was on his stomach shooting back at insurgents who were firing rocket-propelled grenades at the Buhritz police station, just south of the provincial capital Baquba. He also led a chase of attackers in Udaim, north of Baquba -- he was the first through the door of the house where the attackers fled. He wounded one insurgent in the ensuing firefight and captured another.

He likes to ride his motorcycle to checkpoints to check on his troops. Talabani is not a typical general.

"His personality drives the brigade," said U.S. Lt. Col. Frank Muggeo, the Military Transition Team commander. "But we worry if he runs around the front he's going to get himself killed."

American commanders say that Talabani is the face of the Iraqi army they want to put forward. One commander joked that "if there were more of him, we'd be home by Christmas."

Talabani's brigade has 80 percent of the troops it's authorized to have. At any given time 25 percent are on leave. Subtract the wounded, and the 3rd Brigade is fighting at 60 percent strength most of the time, according to U.S. military commanders.

Talabani is responsible for the security of eastern Diyala, north of Baghdad. The area is a cocktail of al Qaeda in Iraq, nationalist insurgents, leftovers from the Saddam Hussein regime and common criminals.

An aggressive commander, Talabani orders about 12 missions a week. He is used to strife.

Family forced to flee

In 1973 Talabani, his parents and five siblings fled their home outside Khanaqin, a small city near the Kurdish north close to the Iranian border. They lived in Iran for two years.

They returned to Iraq and settled in Samara, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Talabani said that their new neighbors avoided them for four months because senior Ba'ath party members had warned that the mountain people were coming to kill them.

"But when they saw that we were normal people we had a wonderful relationship," Talabani said. The family eventually was able to move to the Kurdish north, living in Suleymaniye.

Talabani started fighting at a young age, joining the Peshmerga in 1991 and attending the Kurdish military college in 1992.

He was sent to the Australian Defence College after he joined the then fledgling New Iraqi Army to learn to train troops in Kirkush. In Australia, he juggled English-language and military classes.

"Australian people will learn you English whether you like it or not," he said with a laugh. "They will kill you with PowerPoint and talking. I said to them, 'In Iraq we use RPG-7.' "

'You are mine, I will marry you'

His wife is a childhood crush, a cousin whom -- when they were kids -- he told, "You are mine, I will marry you." She is beautiful, he said wistfully.

"My son is just like me: crazy, and same face," he said, speaking of his 5-year-old who is nicknamed "Little Sniper." Talabani said his 9-year-old daughter takes after her mother.

He doesn't get home very often but says he makes up for it the way most men do. "Middle East women like gold. My wife has 1.5 kilograms," he said.

He is a soldier but says he won't be a pawn in anyone's game.

"I will not follow a government order if they try to use me like Saddam Hussein," he said. "I will quit and go home."

Talabani believes in the future of Iraq.

"This country needs time," he said after a long sigh. "We need to work not like before; we need to work for a new Iraq. By fighting nothing will be fixed. These are soldiers who were killing my people, I can lead them now because we forgive. If everyone can forgive his neighbor we can forget the problem. Day by day we see things getting better."

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