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The most harrowing aspect of his and his family’s journey was the dangerous six miles of road to Baghdad International Airport — the most dangerous, some say, in the world. Al-Baghdadi knew he was being watched, and there was only one man he knew he could rely on, but his friend Jason Vose was on assignment in western Iraq. Al-Baghdadi recalls his urgent phone call to Vose: “I am telling you, man, we need to get the hell out of the country, I am fucking trapped here, hiding my ass like a cowering rat in my apartment — no weapon, and they may come any minute!”
Vose tells the Weekly he responded, in disbelief, “Who are they?”
Once he got the picture, Vose says, within hours he had arranged for an escort of Humvees to accompany Al-Baghdadi’s car to his departing flight. The unofficial escort was manned by U.S. Marines — volunteers. “I owe Jason my life — and the lives of my family,” Al-Baghdadi says with unabashed emotion.
Now–Major Vose says simply, “Much of what he accredits elsewhere is due to his own will and amazing character.”
Safe with his wife and daughter in Jordan in July 2005, Al-Baghdadi contacted the American Embassy there to apply for asylum, presenting a letter written by Vose, dated July 22, 2005, which read: “I beg any coalition authority or member of the U.S. State Department, American Embassy Country Team or Central Intelligence Agency ... to assist Major Al-Baghdadi to be granted asylum. ... What this man has done ... can never be measured or repaid.”
Instead, Vose explains, “The attitude was, ‘The State Department doesn’t work for the military.’ Bureaucrats and politicians who sit in air-conditioned offices and who have never shed their blood will fall back on irrelevant procedures.”
There simply were no fast-track procedures to bring endangered Iraqi allies to America, a situation belatedly addressed by the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007.
Al-Baghdadi applied to about 30 countries for asylum; Poland, England, the Baltic States, Belarus and Ecuador all rejected his appeal. In Jordan, he turned to human smugglers and began a dangerous five-month trek with his wife and daughter through Syria, Turkey, Moscow and Zurich — finally flying to Sweden, one of the few non–Middle Eastern countries that accepted Iraqi immigrants.
They arrived in Stockholm on Christmas Eve of 2005 with $2 — and were miraculously granted political asylum. Al-Baghdadi, who now speaks passable Swedish and is working toward Swedish citizenship by next year, is forever grateful. But the rejection hasn’t rested well with Marines like Vose, who believes that the U.S. clearly abandoned a top ally. In an interview for Swedish radio, Vose issued a rare complaint, saying, “I am very upset with my country as a whole for making it so difficult for Al-Baghdadi.”
The Marine visited his Iraqi ally in Sweden — and they’d hatched a plan. “He was happy to be safe in Sweden but felt useless in helping his country — and America,” Vose says. “He begged me to do something.” The idea was to use Al-Baghdadi as a “nonofficial” — meaning volunteer — language/cultural trainer for U.S. Marines heading to Iraq, so Al-Baghdadi could prove his value to stateside military, who were using private trainers lacking Al-Baghdadi’s language and battlefield expertise.
But Al-Baghdadi, arriving here in 2007 on a business visa, was told he could not bring his family. This time, even the Swedes created bureaucratic barriers — the family is unable to acquire Swedish travel documents until its Swedish immigrant status is finalized in 2010.
In June 2007, Al-Baghdadi was given a room in Vose’s San Diego home and treated like family. Vose’s father, Douglas, also a veteran Marine, “adopted” him, and Al-Baghdadi launched eagerly into work at Camp Pendleton — without pay. He was in a new, gray area. The Marines could not hire him directly, and the private contractor could not hire him under a mere business visa. Until early last year, Al-Baghdadi and his family in Sweden lived on the generosity of Vose and his Marine family.
Soon, the bosses at Camp Pendleton understood they had nobody like Al-Baghdadi, and so found a way to get him hired via a private contractor when an I-94 permit was granted on his passport, with the designation “Public Interest Parole” — essentially meaning that a foreign national is supplying a valuable service.
Today, Al-Baghdadi tries to fit in as a Marine instructor. He dresses neatly in a suit and tie — or in California casual. His expletive-laden speech emulates the military tradition, and so does his drinking of alcohol and consumption of “forbidden” foods. He instructs classes of 70 to 200 Marines on the basics of Arabic, an introduction to Islam, including the differences between Shia and Sunni, the tribal structure of Iraq, and assorted cultural no-no’s.