WASHINGTON—An Iraqi who led rescuers to American POW Jessica Lynch and his family are on their way to becoming U.S. citizens.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced Tuesday that Mohammed Odeh al Rehaief, his wife, Iman, 32, a former nurse at Saddam Hospital, and 5-year-old daughter Abir had been granted asylum and are living in the United States.
"We went into Iraq to liberate the people. One of their citizens, at great risk to themselves, helped liberate one of our soldiers," Ridge explained.
His department's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services granted al Rehaief's family asylum on Monday, Ridge said, to show "the gratitude and the affection of a grateful country." They needed no visas because immigration officers allowed them to enter under "humanitarian parole," a proviso normally reserved for medical emergencies.
Officials feared that the family might face persecution in Iraq, so "There was urgency in getting him to safety in the United States," said Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the bureau.
Strassberger declined to say where the family will live.
The incident that transformed the al Rehaiefs' lives began March 28 when the 33-year-old Iraqi lawyer visited his wife at Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah. According to al Rehaief, a friend said a female American was being held there. Peeking through a window, he said, he saw a black-clad Saddam Hussein loyalist slap the captive twice, and that's when he decided to help.
He walked six miles to the nearest U.S. Marine outpost to report the hostage, who turned out to be Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va. She'd been captured March 23 when her convoy took a wrong turn.
At the U.S. commanders' request, al Rehaief returned to the hospital to do reconnaissance for a possible rescue.
Hours before Marine commandos rescued Lynch on April 1, al Rehaief and his family fled Nasiriyah with only the clothes on their backs and joined the Marines.
Asylum status gives them a chance to live and work in the United States indefinitely. Eventually they may apply for American citizenship.
Earlier this month as al Rehaief recounted for reporters his role in Lynch's rescue, he said, "I love America. I like America. Why? I don't know."
Now they'll find out why.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report from Doha, Qatar.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
Mohammed Odeh al Rehaief.