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Army translator a Kurd, a U.S. Southerner, remains wary of Iraqi-Arabs

BAGHDAD, Iraq—To announce his heritage to Iraqis and annoy them, interpreter Barzon Yonis sometimes wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Kurdistan," the region in northern Iraq and southern Turkey that's home to thousands of potential separatists.

Yonis, 27, who grew up there and later emigrated to Nashville, Tenn., exults in another personal victory these days: He's living in a palace built for the regime of Saddam Hussein, whom Yonis blames for his father's murder.

"We've been abused," said Yonis, 27, who, like many Kurds, mistrusts the southern Arabic majority that's now struggling over power in Iraq. Fearing reprisals from them, Yonis refused to be photographed or to venture out into Baghdad.

Instead, he stays at Radwiniyah, once home to relatives of Saddam, whom Yonis holds responsible for ethnic cleansing that, according to human rights groups, killed 180,000 Kurds in the `80s and `90s.

"A Kurdish guy living in his palace? It's wonderful!" he said with bitter satisfaction.

Yonis, who worked with U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, won political asylum in 1996 on the grounds that his past co-operation with Americans was endangering him.

Now back in Iraq, Yonis serves as an interpreter for U.S. Army Special Forces units. He hopes to help root out insurgents who've attacked American troops.

Back home, he works as a mechanic. His wife is a Kurd who immigrated 13 years ago. They have three children, including a 4-year-old daughter he's taught to spit at the television screen when Saddam's image appears.

Yonis is fiercely loyal to the United States and the Kurds but without sympathy for Iraqi suffering.

"I don't trust them," he said. "I don't care if their kids have no shoes."

He doubts that Iraqis are ready to govern themselves and thinks it will take 30 years for American-style democracy to evolve in Iraq.

"It's too early (for the United States) to leave," Yonis said of the Bush administration's plans to transfer power to Iraqis on June 30.

"Y'all need to stay at least one more year," Yonis said, pronouncing the first word "Yaww" in heavily accented English. Otherwise, he continued, "Y'all gonna come back."


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

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


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