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Outspoken Iraqi woman uses English skills to work with U.S.

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Meet Mayada Salihi. She knows something about surviving. And she's not afraid to talk about it.

She's definitely got the attitude—passionate and outspoken. In a country steeped in patriarchy, with little history of free speech, that's never been a problem for the 31-year-old, married mother of two.

"It is difficult here for some women," said Salihi, who prefers make-up, blouses and slacks to conservative Arab fashion. "For me, it's easy. I can say whatever I want."

Salihi sat in a bus-turned-fast-food-joint at one of Saddam Hussein's former palace grounds, now occupied by U.S. military officials. Eating a "lapha," an Iraqi sandwich of cucumbers, tomato and spiced sheep meat stuffed inside pita-like "semoon," she talked about growing up in Baghdad.

As a girl, she fell in love with the songs of Paul Anka, Barbara Streisand and George Michael—particularly Wham's "Careless Whisper." That's why she learned English.

"I wanted to understand songs and movies without reading the translation," Salihi said. "I am very curious."

Before the war, life was quiet and routine.

She worked about four hours a day teaching English grammar at a private institution. It gave her time with her children, Miriam, 6, and Al Hassan, 4. She earned about 150,000 dinars a month—about $70. Her husband was an electrician then. It wasn't easy, but they were making it.

Then the bombs came.

She walked outside one day to find her neighbor killed by the bombing. It angered her. Later, still seething, she approached the first U.S. soldier she saw and asked him a tough question.

"I said to him: `I need to know when you are leaving our country,' " she said, sipping on a Pepsi.

The soldier had no answer. Calming her anger, Salihi realized she had to use her English skills to work with the Americans.

She works long hours as a U.S. military translator. Her husband works as a driver and guide for journalists.

By the time Salihi gets home, it's nearly dark—too dangerous to go out for groceries, or to visit friends.

"Any horror you like, you face it after sunset," she said. "A colleague of mine was attacked (Thursday) night after sunset. They took his car."

The brother of another colleague lies near death in a hospital after being shot five times five nights ago on Baghdad's streets.

"There are so many tragedies here," she said, lighting a cigarette.

Her house, meanwhile, has been robbed by men called "Ali Baba" thieves. Her home has no furniture. No electricity. No running water.

Four days ago, she discovered four unexploded U.S. cluster bombs in her front yard. She said Iraqis who believe she is working with the U.S. government to arrest members of the former regime placed them there.

"I can't even let my children outside to play anymore," she said. "My house is like a prison."

She finds a paradox in postwar Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, she said, there was no freedom of speech but there was adequate security. Under U.S. rule, Iraqis are free to express themselves but no one feels safe.

Salihi warned that Iraqis are beginning to consider this paradox. Unless the U.S. turns things around quickly, she said they might start longing for the old ways.

"There is an old Arab saying, `If you want to know the value of something—like a leader, try the value of another one for a while," she said.


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

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

Mayada Salihi.