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Kurd returns to his native land as U.S. citizen and interpreter

BASHUR, northern Iraq—The last time Delear Salhi wore a uniform, it bore the markings of the Iraqi army.

These days, Salhi walks around in the U.S. desert camouflage of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, although his chest patch says "civilian contractor."

Twelve years after he was drafted under penalty of death to fight the Americans, Salhi, a Kurdish native of Kirkuk, has returned to his homeland as a paid interpreter for American forces here, doing what he says is his part to free Iraq from the dictator who terrorized his people for 30 years.

He came back as a U.S. citizen who speaks fluent English with a barely perceptible accent. Like those of many Kurds, his is a sad tale. Unlike many, his has a happy ending, in that he now lives a prosperous life in South Dakota and is expecting his first child.

Salhi carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution with him everywhere, and he explains succinctly why most Kurds cheer American troops even though the United States stood by while thousands of Kurds were slaughtered when they rose against Saddam after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

"Yes, America let us down once, twice, three times," he said. "But still, our only hope is America."

Salhi was 10 years old when the Iraqis came and gave the people of his village two days to pack up their things and leave. His father, a prominent businessman and politician who had been jailed by the government, already had fled to the United States.

Saddam was resettling Kurds in an effort to put down their periodic rebellions.

"I remember when they came to destroy the town. Soldiers surrounded it, and they gathered us all together, the men in the mosque, the women and children in the school," Salhi said.

One Kurd, who had deserted from the Army, dressed as a woman and hid in the school. They took him out and shot him, then buried his body with a bulldozer. The next day, his family dug him up and gave him a proper funeral.

"I still have bad dreams about that," Salhi said.

At 17, Salhi was forced into the Iraqi army. During basic training, he went home on leave and learned that his mother had died of cancer. When he returned to his post late, he was thrown in jail for 10 days, in a cell with 50 others.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, his unit was sent to the south, where he lived in a hole as American bombs rained down daily. One day, he managed to get his hands on some blank leave passes. He sold several, forged one for himself and fled north with 50 Iraqi dinars in his pocket.

After a harrowing trip of walking and hitchhiking, he made it back to his family's home near Kirkuk. By that time, Saddam's army had been chased from Kuwait and the Kurds had begun to rise up against the regime.

The uprising was briefly successful until Saddam began using helicopter gunships—which he was allowed to have under the U.S. cease-fire agreement—to rain death upon fighters and civilians alike.

The helicopters came to strafe Salhi's village five times a day, he said. One day he tried to fire an ancient anti-aircraft gun at one of them and a shell exploded in the gun barrel, blowing the index finger off his left hand.

At about this time, Iraqi tanks began moving into Kurdish villages, and Kurds began fleeing into the mountains and toward the Iranian and Turkish border. After some close calls, Salhi's family made it to an Iranian resettlement camp.

"We walked over the hills and down the valleys," he said. "Generous people fed us and housed us."

The American public was outraged at scenes of Kurds shivering in the mountains, and the United States began a relief operation that included a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Under that protective umbrella, Salhi and his brothers and sisters returned to their village.

Salhi later learned that his father, who had remarried, had sent word that he wanted to bring his children to the United States.

His father flew to Turkey, and the children went to an Iraqi town near the Kurdish border. With the help of some members of Congress, Salhi said, his father was able to secure assistance from a U.S. military base. An armed convoy of Humvees was sent into Iraq to pick up the children.

"I was so impressed with the way America takes care of its citizens out of the country," Salhi said. "When we went through those checkpoints, armed men stepped aside. It was like, man, this is what it must like to be an American."

In South Dakota, Salhi learned English, had reconstructive surgery on his hand, went to school and built a life. But when he heard about the opportunity to return to Kurdistan as an interpreter—at the handsome sum of $2,500 per week—he decided to go for it, even though it means he will miss the birth of his son.

It also means an indefinite existence of living in a tent, eating military meals-ready-to-eat and going without a shower.

Salhi, fluent in both Kurdish and Arabic, spends his days helping U.S. troops communicate with Kurdish guerrillas and civilians.

"I wanted to do whatever small thing I could," Salhi said, "to help take down this tyrant."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.