- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

Two U.S.-based Iraqi exiles returned with American troops to liberate their homeland, only to find themselves branded as traitors.

Today, they are back in the United States, but their families in Iraq live in fear. It was a price that they — and many other Iraqis who chose to join U.S. troops — were forced to pay.

Ahmed al-Enezi of Beaverton, Ore., returned to Iraq as an interpreter with American forces. So did Ali Hussein of St. Louis.

They joined the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs 354 Brigade in Kuwait and, in late March, rode into the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, the first city to be secured by coalition troops.

A few weeks later, with a military victory in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein assured, their families traveled to the port city and they met outside the newly established U.S. military base.

Mr. al-Enezi recalls speeding in a Humvee toward the gate to see his waiting family. Suddenly, they were there, including his brother, Ali, who nearly lost his life when Mr. al-Enezi fled Iraq 12 years earlier.

Time stood still. The Humvee screeched to a halt. Then there was a burst of movement as Mr. al-Enezi became entangled in a mass of welcoming arms, his Kevlar vest and helmet no obstacle to the family desperately hugging him.

His dying mother, Kania, gathered her grown son, now 32, into her arms, trying to let go of the pain of so many years of separation.

Soon his eyes focused on Rana, his childhood sweetheart and bride-to-be. For years they had sustained their engagement with telephone calls and videotapes.

Her worry for him had wasted her figure into a slim silhouette. The years faded as they held each other in the sunlight. Mr. al-Enezi felt he was home at last.

“I put my life on the line to be part of this mission,” he said. “This was a dream for me.”

A few weeks later, he and Rana were married in Basra.

“I really love my wife and I miss her. And I want a baby so bad,” he said recently by telephone from Oregon, where he is awaiting U.S. citizenship, a reward promised for service to his adopted country, and making plans to bring Rana to the United States.

Several weeks after crossing into Iraq from Kuwait, his unit made it to Baghdad, where it set up shop. From there, Mr. al-Enezi made two trips, totaling a precious 17 days, to Basra — for his marriage and to say goodbye to his mother, who embraced him one last time before dying several weeks later.

“It was good I got to see her,” Mr. al-Enezi said of his mother, who had suffered from a long illness. “It was like she was waiting for me to come.”

Mixed feelings

In contrast, Mr. Hussein’s return to Iraq ended on a sour note. He never made it to Baghdad and returned to St. Louis, to his American wife and two children, after being fired from his Army job.

Mr. Hussein, 41, says he argued too much with his Army bosses, commanders whom he considered ill-prepared to deal with ordinary Iraqis and the threat posed by remaining Saddam loyalists.

Both men now say they fear for their families back in Iraq. Shortly after their arrival in Iraq, word had quickly spread of their presence and their families began receiving threats.

In some ways, their experience reflects the disarray that continues to plague their homeland, where pro-Saddam elements continue to kill American soldiers, foreign aid workers and Iraqis who join the rebuilding effort.

In 1991, Mr. al-Enezi and Mr. Hussein were soldiers in the Iraqi army. The first Persian Gulf war had just ended, with Saddam still in power, and the first President Bush had publicly called on Iraqis to rise up against the dictator.

They joined the revolt. Saddam quickly prevailed by littering southern Iraq with tens of thousands of bodies. Knowing that they too would be executed if they stayed, they stripped off their uniforms, found U.S. troops who were still in the area and surrendered.

The families they left behind suffered as a result.

“I got my brother Ali almost shot. They arrested my other brother for a month. I know my brother got arrested because I was hiding in my sister’s house,” Mr. al-Enezi said, his voice betraying the guilt he continues to feel so many years later.

Mr. al-Enezi and Mr. Hussein were taken to U.N.-run refugee camps in Saudi Arabia and two years later resettled in the United States: Mr. al-Enezi in Oregon and Mr. Hussein in St. Louis.

“The first year was very hard,” Mr. al-Enezi said, recalling his struggle to learn English and adapt to life in the United States. “But I got better.”

A refugee program enabled Mr. al-Enezi to find a sponsor family to live with and to go to school. Years later he landed a job working on flat panel displays for military fighter planes.

Both men are members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an opposition group partially financed by the United States.

Taking up arms

The INC is led by Ahmed Chalabi, now a prominent member of an interim Iraqi legislative council recently named by U.S. authorities.

Mr. Chalabi had long sought to organize armed resistance to Saddam.

By late last year, as the showdown between Saddam and the Bush administration escalated, Mr. Chalabi had won backing from the Pentagon.

Mr. al-Enezi, Mr. Hussein and hundreds of other Iraqi exiles, many from the INC, rushed to enlist in the new, Pentagon-backed Free Iraqi Forces (FIF).

For Mr. al-Enezi, the call came Jan. 10. He was sworn to secrecy, told to quit his job and fly to Texas. A member of the FBI and a military policeman met him at the airport.

FIF volunteers spent two weeks at a military base in Texas going through medical checks and security clearances before being sent to Hungary, where they received a month of basic training.

From Hungary, they and a third volunteer, Habib Ali, 37, who is still working with U.S. forces in Iraq, were assigned to the 354 Brigade and sent to Kuwait.

Not considered soldiers in the U.S. Army, the three were issued 1991-era U.S. military uniforms and nicknamed “chocolate-chip” for the distinctive camouflage markings that set them apart.

At first they felt less than welcome. They were not given passwords — essential in order to be able to move around in the fist-tight security around their unit — and for a time they feared the whole mission would unravel.

“It was a misunderstanding,” Mr. al-Enezi said.

In March, they received their orders to head into Iraq. When they crossed the border, the Army issued them 9 mm pistols, the only weapons they were allowed to carry.

Family ties

Chosen in part for their family ties in southern Iraq, they spent their first euphoric days in the southern port city of Umm Qasr gathering information from locals, acting as interpreters and trying to figure out how best to secure the peace.

“The Free Iraqi Forces have family in the area,” Col. David Blackledge, commander of the civil affairs brigade, said at the time.

“They know the people and have been really critical in establishing the trust with the local people, that we really were here to help them and to identify people that we needed to work with,” he said.

Sometimes the missions were simple, such as calming the growing panic at a water distribution site. At other times, the assignments were more difficult, and the Iraqi exiles faced once again the deep fear of Saddam Hussein and his Fedayeen forces that had choked the society for years.

The FIF volunteers constantly mediated between the U.S. troops and locals, soothing strained nerves and trying to resolve multiple complaints ranging from missing cars to the lack of water.

Today, Mr. al-Enezi refuses to be discouraged by the daily broadcasts of U.S. forces being attacked, of new dead bodies every day, and the Iraqis’ rising frustration, despair and violence.

“I’m so happy Saddam is gone. Forever. He’s not going to be back. I’m not sure he’s dead — but he will be,” he said.

While in Iraq, Mr. al-Enezi had warned his unit that things were going to get worse before they got better. The Ba’athists would do a lot of things to drive a wedge between the people and the U.S. military, he said.

His unit’s arrival in Umm Qasr was punctuated by the dramatic discovery of $112 million in U.S. currency buried in the yard of a base where the troops were living.

Just steps away from where the FIF volunteers were sleeping one night, soldiers in damp T-shirts were taking turns breaking down a cement bunker. Walking outside to see what the commotion was about, Mr. al-Enezi jumped in to help.

He took a few swings of the pickax, then held a flashlight as Col. Blackledge wrenched open the first box containing $4 million.

There were cheers and high-fives all around as Mr. al-Enezi smelled a stack of crisp, new $100 bills. “I’m getting married,” he shouted jokingly.

Mr. al-Enezi stayed with its unit as it moved on to Baghdad and, from there, he made his two visits to Basra.

In his first days in Baghdad, Mr. al-Enezi talked of staying on after the war and starting married life with Rana. As chaos engulfed the capital and spread around the country, he decided to return to Oregon.

“The only thing that really bothers me is my family getting threatened. I’m here in good hands, but my family …” he said at the time, with his voice fading.

After one visit to the family home in Basra, his brother found a note tacked on the door accusing Mr. al-Enezi of being a “coward” and a “traitor,” threatening the family and vowing to “get you down.”

He quickly got his family to move to another brother’s house in a different town. He still calls constantly to make sure they are safe.

“I’m afraid if I go there, they will kidnap my sister,” he said.

Another call to arms

Mr. Hussein’s call came in late December.

“They said: ‘Ali, quit your job and be ready,’ and in January 23, 2003, I joined other Iraqis in the Free Iraqi Forces.”

The INC sent Mr. Hussein his airplane ticket to Texas. Once there, he found that the U.S. government was working not only with the INC, but also with other exiled Iraqi political groups, bringing in Iraqis who had settled in the United States, Europe and as far away as Syria.

From his home in St. Louis, he said by telephone that he is happy to have gone to Iraq, even if things did not work out as planned.

“I wanted revenge of Saddam. I didn’t hide it,” said Mr. Hussein, remembering March 23 as the day he finally set foot back in Iraq. “I believe I was the first Iraqi from the FIF to cross the border from Kuwait into Iraq.”

“The manager of the [local] hospital, Mohammed Mansouri, refused to take medicine from me because anyone who was seen talking to U.S. troops was warned Saddam would take revenge on them,” Mr. Hussein said.

Even one of Mr. Hussein’s brothers and his old friends told him that until they saw Saddam killed in the street, they would continue to be frightened.

“I spent two to three days convincing people in town” that it was safe to work with coalition forces, he said.

“I told them I was from Basra, that I would not be doing the work I was doing if Saddam could still beat my family. Then some people changed their minds, and we started to distribute water and fuel.”

But Mr. Hussein soon found himself torn between helping coalition forces and wanting to ease the desperation on the faces of his fellow Iraqis. Things quickly turned sour.

“I started to talk more than I was supposed to. I argued with the British major, and I argued with my [American] boss,” he said.

He said he couldn’t bring himself to turn away his own people, despite being told to translate orders to disperse gathering crowds.

When workers were brought to Umm Qasr from India and Pakistan while “Iraqis were at the door looking for work,” Mr. Hussein had one last loud argument.

Getting tossed

“They said ‘thank you, goodbye,’” Mr. Hussein said. The brief joyful moments when he walked on Iraqi soil, wrapped his arms around his family and rejoiced with his friends were over.

The Army’s version of the story is that soldiers were called to the gate to quiet a disturbance in which Mr. Hussein appeared to be inciting some local Iraqis who had been hired earlier to work on base.

Soldiers took away his 9 mm pistol and loaded him into the back of their Humvee.

“He was tossed because he was out of control,” said Capt. Allen Edwards of Alexandria, Va., one of the soldiers who responded to the scene that day. “He was threatening the coalition and he was telling the townspeople not to come to work.”

Mr. Hussein now says he has applied for work in Iraq as a translator with a company specializing in military and government contracts. But he doubts whether he would stay for more than six months.

“I have an American wife and two kids. I am a U.S. citizen,” he said.

Mr. Hussein’s dreams of going back to Iraq are also marred by fears of endangering his family. His brother warns him to be careful.

“I asked him if it is OK to come back again, and he said, ‘no.’ I understand maybe because if I go back [after having] worked with the U.S. Army, they won’t like me,” Mr. Hussein said.

Looking back, Mr. Hussein says he is “very happy” that he went in with U.S. forces and feels he helped guide the troops.

But he says he remains bitter that his advice on how to dismantle the Fedayeen, set up security checkpoints and arrest and disarm Ba’athist elements had been largely ignored.

“I risked my life, the lives of my brothers and sisters. I left my family here,” he said. “I wish I had done more.

“To me, the mission is not done.”

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