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Aouf “Alf” Hasoon tends to business at his tiny market in Forward Operating Base Tiger in Sinjar, Iraq. The interpreter began working with Tiger Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, during the 2003 invasion and returned to the unit this year, even after he was wrongly detained at Abu Ghraib prison for eight months.
Aouf “Alf” Hasoon tends to business at his tiny market in Forward Operating Base Tiger in Sinjar, Iraq. The interpreter began working with Tiger Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, during the 2003 invasion and returned to the unit this year, even after he was wrongly detained at Abu Ghraib prison for eight months. (Monte Morin / S&S)

SINJAR, Iraq — Aouf Hasoon has spoken English for most of his 48 years, but it was at the precise moment the Iraqi was to begin work as an interpreter for invading U.S. forces that his tongue suddenly froze.

Standing on the dusty outskirts of Qaim, Hasoon watched with mounting fear as a wall of American tanks and armored vehicles bore down on him. “I was so scared I could not translate for 10 minutes,” Hasoon said.

The interpreter watched nervously as a wiry officer with a shaved head stepped from one of the vehicles and strode toward him. The officer, Lt. Col. William T. Dolan, then commander of the 1st or “Tiger” Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, grabbed the interpreter’s hand and pumped it heartily.

“It was not a normal handshake,” Hasoon recalled. “It was a GREAT handshake. It made me feel good.”

From that moment on, Hasoon — or “Alf” as the Americans call him — became an unlikely figure in Tiger Squadron’s colorful history, and a loyal friend to the unit. Over the next three years, he would become the only translator to work for the squadron before and after an eight-month stint at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and quite possibly the only detainee there to be given a going-away party by its guards.

“Alf is a unique story,” said Lt. Col. Gregory D. Reilly, the squadron’s present day commander. “We’ll be friends forever. We trust him.”

It began in May 2003, as the squadron struggled to build its base camp in the Sunni Arab enclave without help from American contractors. As a longtime resident of Qaim, Hasoon, a former geologist, became the squadron’s go-to man for all things Iraqi.

“Building a base camp is tough,” Reilly said. “Alf was our liaison. He knew who the sheiks were and he knew the tribes. He worked for us as an interpreter, a contractor and a cultural adviser. He helped us get what we needed.”

In turn, the squadron’s generosity impressed Hasoon deeply. Money was given to a mosque for repairs. Medical clinics were refurbished. Air conditioners, blackboards and sporting goods were handed out to schools. The city got its own television station.

While others in the Sunni Triangle railed at the U.S. occupation, Hasoon said they were wrong to do so.

“Under Saddam, we could vote only for Saddam,” Hasoon said. “Under Saddam, my wife and I had one small television. Now, people have three televisions, two refrigerators. Who do they think gave them this? I say it is God and the Americans.”

Soldiers got into the habit of giving Hasoon gifts, and the Iraqi offered them frequent invitations to eat at his home. “He fed us at least a hundred times,” said Capt. Andrew Austin, a headquarters physician’s assistant. “His wife would lay out a full spread.”

Yet in the days leading up to Tiger Squadron’s departure from Iraq, things changed. The insurgency was gathering force in Anbar. Where Tiger Squadron had lost seven soldiers during its yearlong tour in Qaim, the U.S. Marine unit that was replacing it lost more than a dozen men in a week.

As the violence spread, Hasoon was branded a thief and a collaborator. Interrogators in civilian clothes placed a bag over his head, flex-cuffed his hands and insisted that the gifts in his home were obtained on the black market, Hasoon said. They said he collaborated with insurgents.

The soldiers of Tiger Squadron were shocked. Although the soldiers were instructed to stay away from Hasoon, Austin found himself face to face with him on a March 2004 medical call.

“A staff sergeant in charge of the guard detachment told me ‘Alf’s been hurt,’” Austin said. “I asked him what happened. He said he didn’t know, but he was being interrogated and he got beat up.”

The 36-year-old Ellington, Conn., native found Hasoon in a state of pain. One side of his face was swollen black and blue, he had a fat lip, and his ear was bruised.

To this day, it remains unclear to Austin exactly what happened in that interrogation room.

“I’ve known Alf this long, and I find it hard to believe he did anything to provoke [the violence],” Austin said. “I always felt that something wrong happened.”

For his part, Hasoon said he was hit after denying involvement in a roadside bomb attack. Hasoon believes he was detained after another Iraqi interpreter told lies about him. “Do you know why he did this to me?” Hasoon said. “Because he wanted my job.”

After a few days, Hasoon was taken by convoy to Abu Ghraib. The first two months were miserable, he said. Toilet facilities were dirty, food rations were meager, and prisoners slept on cold earth in unheated tents. On one afternoon, insurgent mortar rounds slammed into the encampment, killing 14 detainees.

“I will not lie to you,” Hasoon said. “Sometimes I would cry.”

The food and living conditions improved dramatically when Hasoon was transferred to another camp away from the attack site. It was there that he attracted the attention of a prison psychologist who was impressed with his ability to calm fellow detainees. He found himself in charge of 400 prisoners. “Our group, we never had any problems,” Hasoon said.

Then, one day, he was released as suddenly and unexpectedly as when he was taken into custody. Before leaving the prison, the psychologist led him into a dark room. The lights clicked on to reveal a crowd of prison staffers, a cake and gifts, including an “Operation Iraqi Freedom” T-shirt.

The staff said they were sorry to see him go.

Even after his release, Hasoon received e-mails from staff members at Abu Ghraib.

“I hope everything is just as you dreamed, you certainly deserve everything,” read one note from a guard. “We all miss you back here. But hope to not have to see you again (hahahaha).”

Hasoon was overcome by a mix of emotions. He was elated to be free, yet all that he owned was gone. He also felt fear. Having worked with the U.S. forces, and living in Baghdad with his wife, Hasoon thought it was only a matter of time before he was killed by insurgents.

He began contacting his friends at Tiger Squadron and was thrilled to learn that the unit would be returning to Iraq, this time in the northwest. Maj. Bryan Radliff, the squadron’s executive officer, asked if Hasoon would be interested in moving to Sinjar with the squadron and to help build a base there, just as he had done in Qaim.

Absolutely, Hasoon said.

Today, as the squadron nears the completion of its second tour, Hasoon operates a small market on the base he helped build, in the same blockhouse room where he lives. Soldiers who visit the store seeking items such as soda, candy bars, cigarettes, DVDs and the odd electronics item are just as likely to have merchandise given to them as they are to actually buy them.

“I can’t even pay for a soda there,” said Capt. James Otis, 30, of St. Louis. “He’s an extremely generous man.”

Some soldiers were surprised that Hasoon would come back to work with them after all that he’d been through, but Hasoon said he never gave it a second thought.

“When I come out, I say I want to be with the Tigers,” Hasoon said.

“Everything else, I have forgotten. I have no Iraqi friends. Who put me in detention? It was Iraqis who said things about me. It wasn’t the Americans.”

While Hasoon said he worries about what will happen to him when Tiger Squadron returns to the U.S. in several months, Radliff and Reilly said they were trying to figure out a way to get Hasoon to the States, at least for a visit.

For his part, Hasoon is thrilled by the idea of visiting America. His dream, he says, is to meet with President Bush.

“I want to tell him this: Don’t leave us in the middle of the road like your father did in ’91. If you leave Iraq now, the rivers will be red. They will be red from blood,” he said. “This is the price for freedom. The Iraqis and the Americans are paying for it now, but one day we will be like brothers.”

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