(Also read: "Seeking asylum and a better life, California's Iraqi refugees find themselves in limbo," by Hanna Inger Win. View photos in the "Iraqi Refugees in Limbo" slideshow.)
Faris Al-Baghdadi sits like a contented prince under a date palm in the sunny courtyard of his father’s home, which he calls the House of Books, and where he learned to love Western culture. He watches his infant son wobble to his feet. The boy grins at his mother, who kneels nearby. An instant later, the peace is broken by the sound of Metallica.
Al-Baghdadi awakes with a gasp, rolls over and turns off the alarm. The joy of that distant afternoon at the House of Books has vanished. In its place he finds a motel room and a deep, desperate sense of loss. His baby son, Medhi, died in a massive bombing many years ago. His wife, daughter and second son live 6,000 miles away. And Al-Baghdadi, once a valuable asset to American forces in Iraq, asks himself if he’s a hero — or a fool.
The answer will have to wait. Al-Baghdadi has less than an hour to get to his job at Camp Pendleton. There, he’ll spend the day teaching Marines what he learned as an officer with his countrymen in the Iraqi Specialized Special Forces and as a covert agent for American occupation forces. He admires the Marines and believes the leatherneck’s unofficial motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” For them, he will forget, at least for a few hours, his heartache and, some might say, his betrayal. He can never return to Iraq. And he may not be safe here in California.
Among all the Iraqis who aided American forces, few proved to be more valuable and fewer still risked as much as Faris Al-Baghdadi (his name has been changed by L.A. Weekly). From 1988 to 1998 he served in Saddam’s Air Force. Eventually, he was arrested, charged with disloyalty (trumped-up charges, he says), and tortured by Saddam’s military. Exiled to Iran in 1999, he returned to his native country after the 2003 American invasion. He worked as a translator and quickly impressed his American employers, who promoted him to lead a secret “special-ops squad,” a clandestine pro-American Special Forces team composed solely of Iraqis who sometimes masqueraded as insurgents or criminals.
But Al-Baghdadi suddenly lost his cover in 2005, when the U.S. pulled his funding and support. Two enemy assassination squads tried to kill Al-Baghdadi, military officials tell the Weekly, yet U.S. officials failed to cut through the red tape to help him flee Iraq, and refused him and his family the refuge of a permanent home in America.
It was his U.S. Marine comrades, acting entirely “on a volunteer basis,” who aided him, through a harrowing and dangerous escape from Iraq. He was left to his own devices by the U.S. Department of State, and his family ultimately found a safe haven not in the U.S. but in Sweden.
Still loyal to America — or, more accurately, loyal to what he now calls “the idea of America” — Al-Baghdadi kept offering his help, until the Marines invited him to train U.S. troops in California. Through the persistence of one USMC major, U.S. authorities realized Al-Baghdadi’s worth and allowed the “asset” — but not his family — to come here. Today, Al-Baghdadi, with his adopted tribe of warriors near San Diego, is Semper Fi and gung ho. But during off-hours, often spent on weekends with friends in Los Angeles, he rages with disillusion and loss.
U.S. officials confirm Al-Baghdadi’s story and agree that he represents much of what is wrong with America’s handling of “foreign national assets” from Iraq. His leading U.S. Army Special Forces mentor, who asked not to be named for security reasons, says, “Al-Baghdadi always got the mission done for us by going anywhere, regardless of how dangerous it was for him to get the information we needed.” Al-Baghdadi narrowly missed being killed by two exploding IEDs and “joked about how working for me was dangerous to his health,” the mentor notes.
Al-Baghdadi’ story suggests that official bungling and indifference damaged U.S. efforts in Iraq and now threaten to break a man who did everything, including killing countrymen, because he believed in American-style democracy.
Today, when not spending his off-duty days in the San Fernando Valley, where he has a favorite spot — the White Harte Pub — and a growing circle of friends, Al-Baghdadi sleeps with the lights on in a motel room within walking distance of Camp Pendleton. On the wall above his bed hang an Iraqi flag, a Swedish flag and a noticeably smaller American flag. On the opposite wall is an erasable bulletin board on which the words are written: “Free in a motel room” and “I don’t need your golden egg.” His laptop and three cell phones are close at hand. He has a television, a microwave, a toaster oven and a comfortable bed, all amenities he never dreamed of during his exile years living in an Iranian refugee camp, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Still, there is a certain shabbiness to the room — not because it is run-down or dirty but because it reeks of loneliness.