Iraqi translator assists U.S. troops; goal is to join them
Stars and Stripes June 5, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — In early April, when Anas Al-Dulaimi waded through crowds outside the Palestine Hotel, he bumped into Spc. Charles Gilbreath standing guard.
The 28-year-old Al-Dulaimi, who spent his childhood in Knoxville, Tenn., was glad to see U.S. soldiers, whom he calls “fellow Americans.”
“I knew if I got into the right hands, they would do me no harm,” Al-Dulaimi said. “My heart beats American.”
Gilbreath, 28, of Thomasville, Ga., and his unit, Company C, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, fought their way to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division. Gilbreath was pulling security at the downtown hotel in mid-April when Al-Dulaimi approached him from across the wire.
“He talked better English than I did,” Gilbreath said, with a slow Southern drawl. “I said, ‘Well, let me go on over and introduce him to one of the lieutenants.’”
Al-Dulaimi’s luck doubled when Gilbreath found Capt. Jared Robbins, who also came from Knoxville, Al-Dulaimi said.
“He knew all the places I knew,” Al-Dulaimi said. “It was like old friends meeting for the first time.”
During most of the 1980s, Al-Dulaimi lived in Knoxville, where his father studied agricultural science at the University of Tennessee. When the family returned to Baghdad, he had to learn Arabic and try to adjust to a stricter culture.
“It was hard for me. Home was the U.S.,” Al-Dulaimi said. “I thought we were Americans.”
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he hoped that U.S. forces would take Baghdad and was disappointed when they stopped short. Over the next decade, he and his family faced poverty under U.N. sanctions. His father, a university professor, refused to join the Baath Party and was forced to drive a taxi for about $6 a month.
Al-Dulaimi began studying computer engineering, but was then called on to serve in the Iraqi military. After a stint aboard a T-72 tank, he was selected to join the special forces of the Iraqi Republican Guard’s Medina Division and was trained in commando tactics.
“They try to brainwash you and say ‘America is our enemy,’” he said. “I just had to swallow it and keep my mouth shut.”
After six months, his father sold the car for $500 to buy Al-Dulaimi’s way out of the army. He traveled abroad to avoid serving in the Iraqi army reserve.
When U.S. troops advanced on Baghdad in late March, Al-Dulaimi avoided the fighting by staying on his aunt’s ranch in Anbar, about 30 miles west of Baghdad.
“I knew they were serious this time,” he said. “I was crossing my fingers that the U.S. would win the war. Unfortunately, they did not capture Saddam.”
He ventured into the Iraqi capital, hoping to use his English skills to land a job with the U.S. Army. Both he and his brother Feras were hired as interpreters, making $7 per day.
“I consider it an honor being here, living among these guys,” Al-Dulaimi said. “They are just like friends. When I take the day off, I miss them.”
By the time Robbins handed over Company C to Capt. Mark Madden a few weeks ago, Al-Dulaimi was already one of the guys. They even gave him a nickname — “Mike.”
“We were very fortunate that he stumbled upon us,” said Madden, who uses Al-Dulaimi’s language skills on patrol. “His English is phenomenal.”
But he has also offered valuable intelligence to patrols through the city, as the soldiers ferret out criminals and Saddam loyalists. Sometimes he’s been under fire on raids.
“Because he lives here, [he] knows what to look for,” said Spc. Jason Blake, 22, of Wiscasset, Maine. “We’ll be driving and he’ll say, ‘Stop. Those guys are up to no good.’
“Then, he’ll get out and chase the guys with us.”
Al-Dulaimi now hopes to get an immigration visa, go back to the States and join the U.S. Army. But for now, he is among friends.
Two months ago, when Gilbreath’s unit faced the enemy at the Euphrates River, the GI never guessed an Iraqi would be one of his best buddies.
“Now,” Gilbreath said, “We’re pretty much like brothers.”