Iraqi-Americans Serve With Troops

Group translates, deals with locals

UMM QASR, Iraq – Another Hussein is fighting for power in Iraq.

His name is Ali.

The difference between Ali and Saddam Hussein is that Ali and
several hundred loyal buddies – all Arabic speakers, well armed,
with gas masks and the latest intelligence – are fighting on the
side of the Americans. They serve as translators, gather
intelligence from the locals and help to deal with an Iraqi
population torn and traumatized by three decades of war and
totalitarian control.

And as U.S. forces moved within 6 miles of Baghdad on Thursday,
their mouths were practically watering at the prospect of Hussein’s

“You see,” said Ali Hussein, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old father of
two, “Saddam took away my beautiful life.”

They call themselves the Free Iraqi Fighters, and they entered this
war via the Iraqi National Congress opposition group. They took
lie-detector tests administered by U.S. officials in Texas, combat
training in Hungary and a night flight into northern Kuwait to join
the Americans.

The U.S. government enlisted these fighters because they know Iraqi
culture down to the faces of reliable local water-truck drivers and
have fought before in Iraq’s mind-addling heat.

They launched the 1991 uprising that the first President Bush
encouraged after the Persian Gulf War and then failed to support.
Then they escaped to America, where many grew comfortable.

Ali Hussein supports his wife Paula and their two children in St.
Louis by driving a blue-and-white cab.

They stand out most in situations like one that frayed nerves here
this week. Six dusty Iraqi soldiers strode toward a U.S.-British
perimeter, seeking to surrender. British troops ordered them to lie
face down on hot asphalt. Were they for real? Or fedayeen fighters
strapped with explosives?

Hussein approached in a Humvee with Lt. Col. Ken Knox, the
operations chief at the main U.S. beachhead in southern Iraq.

He sized up the Iraqis and asked Knox to “let me talk with them.”
Knox nodded and told the British his man could help. Hussein parked
and bolted right in close, searching the Iraqis, who apparently
thought they were going to be killed.

“I say: ‘Feel safe. These soldiers will help you. They’ll give you
water and a blanket,”‘ Hussein said.

One man said he had a bad headache. Hussein reached in the big side
pocket on his fatigues and slipped him a Motrin 800 – telling him
to take it only with food and water that the soldiers soon would

Surrender accomplished – one fewer hair-trigger encounter for
exhausted troops trying to consolidate their battlefield gains.

“I try to, like, make both sides feel better,” Hussein said

Not all Iraqis trying to surrender are greeted with Arabic-speaking
brethren. The first stop for most after they turn themselves in
here is a white metal shipping container with 14 air holes cut in
the side – a makeshift holding pen. When patrol vehicles are
available to ferry them, they move to a larger holding area with
more than 4,000 others along the Iraq-Kuwait border.

Yet with their ability to translate, the Iraqi-American fighters
add instant understanding when tensions are high. They also gather
intelligence practically everywhere they patrol. One fighter this
week obtained a list with addresses of fedayeen loyalists hiding in
a city. This is how commandos know where to go on their flare-lit
nighttime house calls.

And Thursday, Ahmed, 33, who asked that his last name not be
printed to protect relatives, even gave lessons on citizenship to
Iraqis who fought in line as they waited for water.

Ahmed ordered the people filling the water containers to stop and
yelled out: “Stop. We Iraqis have to try to live America style. We
have to try to live organized lives. If you fight each other in
front of these Americans, they are not going to want to help you
again. You know, I have lived for 12 years in America. I’ve never
had to fight for my turn. My turn is my turn. A lot of things are
going to be different.”

The crowd calmed.

For their wartime service, the Free Iraqi Fighters are paid about
$1,600 a month, less than most earn in America. Hussein said he
earns at least $2,000 a month driving his cab. Same for his
tentmates – Habib Ali, 39, a forklift driver in Lincoln, Neb., and
Ahmed, who makes radar screens in Portland, Ore.

Yet the fighters work fiercely. Sometimes they barely sleep as
American colonels call for translators. Iraqi-American fighters
“are really helpful,” said Col. Dave Bassert, 51, a U.S. Army
civil-affairs chief here. “They are really true soldiers. They are
sticking their necks on the line, and in some cases their families’
necks on the line.”

Their motivations emerge over meals or riding around in Humvees.
Ali Hussein is a Shiite Muslim denied schooling under Saddam
Hussein. He was forced to fight in Iraq’s eight-year war against
fellow Shiites in Iran. He couldn’t fully settle in America knowing
relatives were suffering in Iraq.

He lost one brother, executed for refusing to fight in Iran, and
his best friend Mansuour, who was jailed after the 1991 uprising.
Mansuour decided against fleeing with Hussein so that he could stay
with his pregnant wife.

When Habib Ali fled Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s henchmen arrested his
brother-in-law in Baghdad, he said. They held him for weeks. Ali
fears he may have been tortured.

“I knew it was a bad situation when he called me in the United
States from Baghdad. He didn’t talk much. He was with others. He
just said: ‘Habib, I have a bad situation here.’ When he told me
that, I knew.”

When Ahmed was hiding in Basra, trying to escape Iraq, Iraqi agents
picked up his younger brother. Ahmed said they beat him with metal
cables and threatened to shoot him. As his brother stood without a
blindfold before a firing squad, Ahmed said, he asked the captain
if he could face away from the bullets. The captain laughed and
asked why. By then, Ahmed’s brother was just praying. The captain
then asked subordinates why this man was facing the firing squad.

He was being punished because of his brother Ahmed, they said. The
captain set him free.

“Because I got involved in the revolution, my brother got beaten
up, and almost shot to death.”

When recruiters called last year for a classified mission to help
U.S. forces eliminate Saddam Hussein, Ahmed recalled, he
immediately volunteered. Then he started making careful phone calls
home. He told a brother in the Basra area: “I’m going to be in
Europe soon. Some day I’m going to be very close to you guys.”‘

He also called Rana, the girl he had courted for 13 years by
telephone. He met her when she was 9 and arranged to marry her
according to Shiite custom. She was 21 when he called and was
giving up hope of ever seeing Ahmed.

Ahmed recounted their conversation. He asked her: “What would you
do if someday I knocked at the door of your house and met you in

“That’s not going to happen,” she said.

“Please, just pretend. Play this game with me.”

“I don’t know what I would do. I miss you. I’d want to touch you,
feel you. But why this game?”

Here, patrolling roadways in southern Iraq, he met his brothers and
mother and Rana last week. They’d spotted him in a television
broadcast and realized he was back in Iraq. On a street in Umm
Qasr, they cried and hugged. U.S. soldiers slowed their convoy for
the reunion.

Ahmed rushed, head spinning. “Where is my mother?”

When he saw her she pointed at Rana. “Look! That’s your

Rana said: “I thought you were playing a game with me.”

Now Free Iraqi Fighters say they really want to get back to real

But not until Saddam Hussein is gone.

Some say real life for them will unfold in America.

Ali Hussein has a different dream. He wants to come home to Iraq.
He wonders about jobs in Baghdad. He envisions his wife Paula
working at a U.S. Embassy there. He talks about multiparty

“Peace. No president for life. Worship freely,” he said. “I’m
not really doing this to help the U.S. Army. The U.S. Army is
helping us, because without them we couldn’t fight Saddam. You
Americans are actually helping us.”