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Arab-Americans working in Iraq link the U.S. military, Iraqi people

BAGHDAD, Iraq _The woman in camouflage fatigues has an Iraqi face. Her accent is pure Baghdad. She knows to offer sugary tea to visitors who spent their savings on a cab ride and made it past five checkpoints to see her.

"Shlonek, habiby?" 53-year-old Widad Jajou greets her visitors at the Iraqi Assistance Center. How are you, my darling?

It's almost as if she hadn't left here 27 years ago. Jajou, however, is an American, with a home in California and a husband and two children there who pray for her safe return.

Hundreds of other Arab-Americans also have made their way—or way back—to Iraq as interpreters, soldiers, humanitarian workers and contractors. As tensions run high nine months after the war's official end, Arab-Americans are playing increasingly crucial roles in bridging the gaping cultural divide between Iraqis and the U.S. military.

Along the way, many are rediscovering their cultural roots, enjoying again the food their grandmothers made, brushing up on their Arabic slang and teaching their American colleagues empathy for a people who found that their suffering didn't end with Saddam Hussein's overthrow. Some say they're in no hurry to get back to the United States, though their assignments often pose frustrations.

"They are so happy to hear my accent, to know I'm Iraqi," Jajou said of the people who visit her. "But they also think that because I'm American, I can solve all their problems. It grieves my heart. Some days you can't do anything but cry."

The role of Arab-Americans extends from translators such as Jajou all the way to Gen. John Abizaid, the Lebanese-American who's head of the U.S. Central Command for the war. A Syrian-American arranges interviews for a senior coalition spokesman, a Palestinian-American delivers millions of dollars from coalition headquarters to Iraqi banks each week and an Egyptian-American records human rights complaints.

A Jordanian-American Army captain sometimes delivers briefings to L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. envoy to Iraq, and a low-ranking Arab-American soldier in the north has become a commanding officer's personal aide simply because no one else could speak both English and Arabic.

Arab-Americans are asked each day to give cultural and religious sensitivity lessons to U.S. soldiers, while putting a familiar face on the occupation for Iraqis.

"I'm an ombudsman," said Army Sgt. Omar Masry, whose Saudi mother and Lebanese-Armenian father called him crazy for deploying to Iraq last April. "You have this fear, but you also have this empathy because you know history hasn't been kind to the Iraqis."

The money and adventure available for bilingual Arab-Americans prompted many to uproot their lives for temporary, lucrative work in Iraq.

Bored with his accounting gig in Orange County, Calif., for example, Al Elsadr answered a job posting for Arabic speakers and left for Iraq last June with a group of Americans who had roots in Sudan, Libya and Lebanon. He was hired as a cultural adviser and linguist on contract, but was quickly promoted and now works full time for the Pentagon as the chief liaison between the coalition and the Arab press.

The 24-year-old Egyptian-American has no journalism experience. As a civilian who can blend in with Iraqis, he's sent outside the heavily guarded U.S. operations area known as the "Green Zone" to greet local media figures with traditional kisses on the cheek and to deliver Arabic salutations from the coalition. For safety, Elsadr sometimes takes along friends with "a couple of M16s and a couple of 9 mm's."

"When I go out in a suburb, they're not going to say, `He speaks Arabic; his last name is Elsadr," he said. "They see an SUV with American license plates and they take shots at me."

Once, he said, he zipped through Baghdad at 80 mph and accidentally ran through a U.S. checkpoint, a fatal mistake for many Iraqis. Soldiers fired at him and surrounded the car until he explained that he was American. While the dangers and isolation are sometimes depressing, Elsadr said, he plans to stay at least through the transition of power to Iraqis this summer.

"I want to say that I came here, helped establish democracy in Iraq and that I helped the coalition do it right," he said.

Some came even though they didn't support the war. Ala Faik, a 51-year-old Iraqi-American from Ann Arbor, Mich., said he wasn't in favor of the war, but holds out hope that his native country can become a pluralistic, democratic model for the Middle East.

One of his proudest moments, he said, was producing an audio project called "Mass Graves Symphony" after 15,000 bodies were unearthed in southern Iraq.

"When the Bush administration declared that removing the old regime was its new policy, a lot of Iraqi-Americans felt we had to take advantage of that and just push forward," said Faik, a top consultant for al Iraqiya, the fledgling Arabic-language media network that the coalition started. "But I consulted the core of my soul before I accepted this. All those years I stayed in the States, I studied my culture and the diversity of that culture. Those years set me up for this. I'm ready for this."

Jajou, the translator at the Iraqi Assistance Center, said she faced a similar dilemma when deciding whether to come back to the place she last saw when buildings weren't surrounded by concertina wire and no blast walls were necessary to protect from car bombers.

"I don't regret leaving" Iraq, Jajou said, her eyes glistening with tears one recent day. "If I had stayed, I probably would have been a victim, just like the people I help now."

E-mails from her husband, son and daughter in America keep her going on days when the stories she hears become too heartbreaking. She plans to leave for a break once her six-month contract is up this spring. But against the advice of her family, Jajou said she hoped to return.

"The first day my plane landed at Baghdad airport, I started crying," Jajou said. "I didn't think I would ever be able to do this, that the day would come when I could give what I can. It was, like, `Yes, I'm here.'"


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.