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Iraqi colonel took U.S. POW's belongings as mementos

BASRA, Iraq—Army Spc. Edgar Adan Hernandez took three wallet-sized photos of his 18-year-old girlfriend with him to a faraway war. The snapshots of Edleen Aguilera took him back to Texas.

Hernandez was returning to his base in Fort Bliss, Texas, on Tuesday after 18 days as a prisoner of war and a 30-day leave spent at home in Alton, Texas. His photos, however, are still in Iraq.

He was one of six U.S. prisoners held by Iraqi troops in the southern city of Nasiriyah and then in Baghdad. An Iraqi colonel, Allah Muhamed Jasim, took Hernandez's mementos and made them a part of his own memories.

During the 26-day war and its aftermath, the lives of thousands of Americans and Iraqis intersected. Many clashed, some died. Others gained a better understanding—and respect—for one another. And some grabbed pieces of the others' lives as spoils of a war they'll never forget.

Jasim keeps the photos in a wooden drawer at his home in Basra, along with Hernandez's silver MasterCard and his U.S. military identification card.

His photos belong back in the United States, not in Iraq, Hernandez said at his home in Alton, a day before he left for Fort Bliss, near El Paso.

"I don't want them to be over there," Hernandez said. "I was real mad when he (the Iraqi colonel) said they're going to keep my picture."

Hernandez finally canceled the credit card Monday morning.

"I took the photos because these events can never be repeated again," the thin, bearded Jasim said as he sat recently in the comfortable living room of Maj. Salah Gassim Zboon, 32, a former comrade. Zboon has a fourth photo that also belonged to Hernandez.

In two of the photos, Hernandez and Edleen wear fashionable black. Blue hearts circle them like strobe lights in a disco. In a third, Edleen looks sharp in her ROTC uniform.

"Babe, I hope you like my picture and hold on to it. I love you so much, and take care," Edleen wrote on the back of the third photo. In Spanish, she added: "Que dios te guarde y te cuide. Te amo." May God keep you safe and take care of you. I love you.

Jasim and Hernandez crossed paths during one of the deadliest incidents for U.S. forces. On March 23, Iraqi troops attacked a convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss. Jasim and Zboon said the Iraqis tried to stop the convoy, but a black female soldier began firing at them. The Iraqis returned fired and hit one U.S. vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade. The U.S. military says Iraqi paramilitary fighters ambushed the convoy.

Hernandez, who is restricted from talking in detail about the ambush pending a military investigation, denied that a black female soldier began firing.

Six U.S. soldiers—four men, two women—were captured.

The prisoners included Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., who was taken to a hospital and later rescued by U.S. commandos in a raid that made headlines around the world.

After the ambush, Hernandez and four comrades were taken to Jasim's office, largely because Jasim and Zboon spoke broken English. Both were assigned to Iraq's 3rd Battalion, 11th Division, which had played a leading role in the Iran-Iraq war.

Getting Hernandez to talk was difficult, Jasim said. All the soldiers initially gave only their names, ranks and units. So Jasim rifled through Hernandez's possessions.

"He was forced to tell us," Jasim said. "I told him we had the photos of his girlfriend, his personal identification and his MasterCard. Whether I believed it or not, he had to speak."

The conversation with Jasim and Zboon lasted a couple of hours, Hernandez said. "Their English wasn't very good."

Jasim and Hernandez couldn't be more different.

Hernandez, 21, is Mexican-American and joined the Army to get away from his small, low-income community for a while and see the world.

Jasim, 39 and a 19-year army veteran, is married with children and from a conservative Shiite Muslim family in Basra.

He said he was drawn to Hernandez, first by what he described as Hernandez's Asian features. He didn't fit Jasim's stereotype of a U.S. soldier. Jasim questioned him for about two hours, calling him "Ajaar" because he couldn't pronounce "Edgar."

He said Hernandez told him his unit was a military supply unit and that they had made a wrong turn near Nasiriyah on the way to Baghdad. They also chatted about Islam.

After their talk, an Iraqi news team arrived, and Hernandez's face was shown on Iraqi television. Soon after, he and the four other soldiers were taken to Baghdad.

That was the last Jasim saw of Hernandez.

Iraqi intelligence officials left the U.S. soldiers' possessions behind. They included bloody uniforms, a car-lock remote control, a video-game CD and phone cards.

Jasim searched for something to remember Hernandez by. The photos, in particular, intrigued him. In his world, men and women don't openly display emotional closeness, and the only black clothing many Iraqi women wear are the head-to-toe Islamic garments called abayas.

"The most exciting things were Ajaar's. I liked them," Jasim said. "Something attracted me to Ajaar's things. I talked to him so much. I liked him."

Zboon, a 10-year army veteran, said he wanted to return the possessions, but that could have meant death. "We were afraid we might have been considered traitors," he said.

The men also saw the pictures as trophies from Iraq's most significant defeat of the U.S. Army. "It was the climax of the war for us, our biggest victory," said Jasim, pride still in his voice.

When it became clear that Iraq was losing the war, Jasim and Zboon traded their uniforms for civilian clothes and walked 13 hours from Nasiriyah home to Basra.

Today, both men are unemployed. They worry that their ties to Saddam's regime will hinder their efforts to find jobs. Yet they don't regret being part of the war.

A photo of Zboon hangs in his living room near a television, VCR and an aquarium. He's in full military uniform in his office in Nasiriyah, standing proudly.

"I wasn't fighting for Saddam Hussein," Jasim said. "I fought for my country."

The photos now trigger painful thoughts for him.

"They bring sad memories," he said. "We saw the aggression of the U.S. soldiers and how they killed our soldiers," he said.

He said he keeps the photos locked in his drawer now. Someday, he hopes to meet Hernandez again and return the mementos.

"By the grace of Allah, one day if I have the ability to go to America or if I at least know his address, I'll be able to give them back to him," he said. "I want to prove to him that we Iraqis are human."

Hernandez would like all the pictures of Edleen returned to him.

With his 2-year-old daughter, Teeba, which means "kindness" in Arabic, by his side, Zboon handed the photo he had taken from Hernandez to a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer. "Can you give this back to him?" he asked. "It's just to be humanitarian."


(Sarah Ovaska of the McAllen, Texas, Monitor contributed to this report.)


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

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