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American soldier reunites with Iraqi relatives

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi man in traditional Arab clothing didn't recognize the young man at his door Sunday morning.

Six years, and a war, had passed since they had seen each other. It was the recent war that worried the older man. Here he was, an Iraqi Air Force brigadier general, with a U.S. soldier at his door and more of them outside.

Calmly, the young soldier, Wathik Latif, put his M16 rifle on the car parked in the driveway, and took off his helmet.

"He was all worried at first," Latif, a 20-year-old Army specialist attached to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, would say later. "And then it kicked in. I think he recognized my ears."

Raad Yahya's eyes lit up. He grabbed his nephew—flared ears and all—and held on. Latif's aunt and three cousins broke into wide smiles of relief and then expanding joy.

They told him his family in Baghdad—all seven sets of aunts and uncles, scores of cousins and Latif's beloved grandfather—had survived the war. And for the first time they learned that their American relative had made it through.

"I was afraid for you," said his aunt, Maye. The soldier's eyes welled.

Latif's Iraqi father, Abdullatif Latif, and his mother, Patsy Hidalgo of Ohio, met in school in Tours, France. They settled in Deltona, Fla., where Wathik grew up and where his father is a business manager for an air-conditioning business.

It was in 1993, with his marriage on the rocks, that Abdullatif Latif took 10-year-old Wathik for his first visit to Iraq. The first Gulf War had ended two years earlier, and sanctions were hitting Iraq hard, Wathik Latif recalled.

"Ice cream was illegal because they needed the milk for babies," said Latif. "But people were using the baby formula to make ice cream. Everybody had ice cream on the hush-hush."

He remembers his grandmother cooking a huge, traditional feast and his grandfather taking care of the beautiful backyard garden. He remembers visiting Babylon, running through a landscaped maze and standing near a mammoth statue of a lion pouncing on a man. He remembers Babylon under reconstruction.

"But instead of Hammurabi's name on it, it had Saddam Hussein's," Latif said.

He visited again in 1997; his parents had split up by then.

"Everybody was a little older and had different views on things. The situation had gotten better. There was a lot more candy, soda and food," he said.

Relatives told him stories about Saddam's reign. One in particular has stuck with Latif.

One day, they told him, an old man saw Saddam on the street and told him he wished he would die. In full view of the neighborhood, Saddam's henchmen seized the man and, using a needle-like device, pumped his stomach full of oil. Then they shot him in the gut.

"He exploded and oil went everywhere," Latif said.

That story was with him when he was told that he was being deployed for war against Iraq.

"I didn't really want to come," said Latif, an Army communications technician. "But then I thought, if we could get rid of Saddam, it would make things better for Iraq. It'll be better in the end."

Latif joined the Army at 19, when he was attending college and working in a grocery store, stocking frozen foods. "I just needed a break from school," he said.

That decision led to his reunion Sunday with his extended family. He was warmly welcomed into his relatives' two-story house—comfortable, though still without electricity. A portrait of Raad Yahya, posing in full military uniform with the late King Hussein of Jordan, hung on the kitchen wall, just beneath a clock-picture of Saddam.

An escorting soldier pointed out that Iraqis no longer needed to place photographs of Saddam in their home.

"I don't want to waste a good clock," Raad Yahya said through an interpreter.

Raad and Maye brought out bottles of Pepsi, an expensive commodity in post-war Iraq. Latif helped serve them.

His 15-year-old cousin, Noora, returned from her bedroom with a school-age photograph of Latif, distinctive ears poking out. "She used to have a crush on me," he said with a smile.

They posed for photographs and exchanged off-the-cuff English-to-Iraqi translations of simple words. Uncle Raad joked with his nephew about trading his military-issue AK47 for Latif's M16. Then the family made arrangements for another feast in his honor.

His grandmother won't be there; she died a few years ago. Latif said he plans to visit her grave. However, his grandfather, although ill, will attend.

"I'm glad I'll be able to catch him one more time before he dies," he said.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): reunion

Iraq

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