By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Jill Stewart
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Revak, who earned two Purple Hearts after being severely wounded in Ramadi in July 2006, figured, “He must have been real crazy or real stupid.” He later realized Al-Baghdadi was “just fearless.”
The man who soon became Al-Baghdadi’s U.S. Army commander, Major Sean Kuester, tells L.A. Weekly of a “Memorandum for Record” he wrote on June 18, 2004: “He is loyal to a degree not seen in today’s world.” And, he adds, “Al-Baghdadi has earned the nickname ‘Combat Al-Baghdadi,’ because he continuously volunteers to go out on missions.”
Al-Baghdadi was equally impressed by Major Kuester: “He treated my country with respect. He dealt with me as an officer — not as a coward Iraqi.” Major Kuester gave Al-Baghdadi — as a personal gift — a handgun and permission to carry it, an indication of admiration and trust.
At a dirt-cheap translator’s wage of $27 per day, Al-Baghdadi was able to convey the nuances of both languages. His style did not always sit well with superior officers, who mistook Al-Baghdadi’s long-winded translations of one-sentence questions as verbosity — until it became clear that the information Al-Baghdadi was able to convey in Arabic was not military English.
Marine First Lieutenant Tyson F. Belanger’s memo of February 1, 2005, explains that Al-Baghdadi “became a favorite translator of Colonel Toolan, the commanding officer of Regimental Command Team 1,” and his translations were recognized as combining “both art and force.”
Although some Americans may not have gleaned this fact from U.S. media coverage at the time, there was a postinvasion honeymoon of about six months, and Al-Baghdadi immersed himself in it, even as Iraqi collaborators like him came under pressure from their families, neighbors, tribes and religious leaders to stop aiding the Americans, or face death.
One of the biggest mistakes he saw was the arrogance exhibited by some American soldiers as an occupying force; they considered Iraqis inferior in every respect because of how easily the coalition conquered Iraq. But, Al-Baghdadi argues, “The majority of Iraqis didn’t believe in the war. We believed Saddam was using the war to oppress his own people. That is why we didn’t fight.”
Faris Al-Baghdadi, though, was a man full of fight. When Operation Iraqi Freedom brought down Saddam, it had been only a few years since Saddam’s secret police had detained Al-Baghdadi, imprisoned and tortured him. His shattered and missing front teeth, which a dentist in the San Fernando Valley is now painstakingly repairing, are a constant reminder of his final, monstrous torture session in 1999. A Pepsi can was slammed into his mouth while electric wires were attached to his testicles. The can was jammed into other areas of his body, a rape by object, which is almost unimaginable. “They tried to take my manhood,” he says today. “They could not.”
Al-Baghdadi had reason to despise America but didn’t. During the Gulf War, his baby boy was killed in the Allied bombing of Nasiriyah, where he was stationed at the Ali Air Force Base as a first lieutenant under Saddam. He dug a small grave in the garden and buried his son but blamed Saddam, who used Al-Baghdadi’s family and thousands of others as human shields.
He took part in the Shia uprising at the end of the Gulf War in March 1991. Like thousands of other Shia rebels, he believed that American and coalition forces would aid their coup after George H. W. Bush called them to rise up against Saddam: “to take matters into their own hands.” Instead, in what some Middle East experts see as a devastating betrayal of Iraq’s citizens, the first George Bush decided not to help because of concerns about destabilizing the region. In a 1992 statement regarding the removal of Saddam, Dick Cheney said that had the U.S. toppled Saddam during the first war, “the question is, What do you put in its place? You know, you then have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq.”
The Shia rebels and their families were ravaged and brutally suppressed by Saddam’s Republican Guard. While records of Al-Baghdadi’s torture do not exist, Major Jason Vose, who became the translator’s closest friend, says, “I do not doubt for a moment that he endured the torture and abuse from the former regime.”
Released from Saddam’s prison a nearly broken man, Al-Baghdadi left for Baghdad, joining his wife and his new baby girl, Samah. He watched in fury as the U.N. embargo imposed by Bush Sr., and then Bill Clinton, cut off essential supplies to the region. According to UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) reports, more than 1 million people died in Iraq from lack of medicine and food. Yet Iraq’s leadership, as reported in a 1997 analysis by USAF Lieutenant Colonel Randy T. Odle, “... still lived in the opulence enjoyed prior to the sanctions.” And did so until the 2003 invasion.