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U.S. soldier, Iraqi relatives celebrate reunion

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The ceiling fan came on shortly after U.S. Army Spc. Wathik Latif walked into his grandfather's Baghdad home.

It was the first time the power had flowed through the two-story house since the war began, and it was seen as a sign.

"Talk about timing," said Staff Sgt. James Rozzo, 35, of Girard, Ohio, one of five 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division soldiers who escorted the 20-year-old soldier to his family reunion Sunday afternoon.

Latif's father, an Iraqi, met his mother from Ohio while in school in France. They've since divorced, but both still live in Florida. Latif, meanwhile, made two pre-war trips with his father to Iraq to visit his family, the last one six years ago.

He found his uncle, Raad Yahya Latif, in Baghdad on April 24. Raad Latif put together the reunion of about 20 of the young man's Baghdad relatives, including his 82-year-old grandfather, Yahya Abdullatif Ali.

"This is the house my dad grew up in," said Wathik Latif, sitting near an illustration of the family tree, one tracing its roots to the prophet Mohammad's cousin, Ali, and dating back 1,400 years.

He walked through the house, recalling mischievous episodes of his visits there.

Standing on the roof of the house, he pointed to a hole in the mud-colored mortar.

"Remember this?" he said to his cousin, Mohammed Latif. "This happened when we shot that pistol into a piece of wood." They both laughed.

A portrait of his grandmother, who died two years ago from breast cancer, hung on the living room wall. On another wall hung a portrait of his grandfather, Ali, in full military uniform, circa 1940.

The military runs in the family. All seven of his Iraqi uncles served in that country's military. (Only three could attend Sunday's reunion.)

Wathik Latif, of Deltona, Fla., was not sure he'd get to see his grandfather alive again. Ali is in ill health. The two embraced outside his home.

"I've missed you," Ali told his grandson. "I can't believe you're here right now in that Army suit."

"That part about the Army suit was kind of weird," the young soldier said afterward, laughing. "But he was glad to see me."

Following the visit to Ali's house, a convoy of soldiers and Latif's family drove across town to the home of his uncle, Wissan Yahya Latif.

Family and soldiers ate from a table full of traditional Iraqi dishes that included "couba," rice and spiced lamb in fried bread; tomato-stewed chicken; "beriany," a spicy rice dish that includes curry and small grapes called "kishkish"; curried lamb; a salad that is kind of like pico de gallo, and "semoon," homemade pita-like bread.

Afterward, three uncles put on their Iraqi air force uniforms and posed for a picture with the American soldier.

The lights had come back on for the family. They had all survived. War no longer mattered.

One family member said he saw it as a sign that families are stronger than nations.

"I think this is true," said Mais Yahya Latif, Wathik Latif's cousin.

"With everything we've been through since we got here, this made it all worthwhile," said Rozzo, the young soldier's squad leader.

Wathik Latif left with a plate of food to pass on to other soldiers back at camp. He'll be returning to his American home soon. But he said he looked forward to another deployment in Iraq.

"I know where I'll be spending my off-days," he said with a smile.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+grandad