Return to freedom

For "Mike," an Iraqi exile who has returned as a Free Iraqi Fighter (FIF), the past few weeks have played out like a movie.

Twenty-five years ago, Mike fled Iraq as Saddam Hussein consolidated his power. A week after the US invasion began, Mike returned as a member of a US-trained opposition militia.

"I left by car and I came back by Humvee. And I was happy to come back with the Americans," said Mike. "In 1978, I took a handful of dust and kissed it. When I came back, I took dust and kissed it."

During his years in exile, Mike had been active with a Christian minority group within Iraq called the Assyrian Democratic Movement. When his group heard that the US wanted Iraqi exiles to help with US civil affairs battalions, he said he was ready to go. Many others expressed interest, but few actually filled out the paperwork. Even fewer made it through rigorous US background checks.

As he rode in the Humvee en route to the former Iraqi air base at Talil, children waved at him. But older people looked away. Mike attributed it to the US pullout after the first Gulf War.

"They were still afraid. I said to myself, 'No my people, this time it will be real.'"

Mike has been attached to US Special Forces based in Talil. He and a few FIF comrades assist troops ascertain the civilian needs in the small towns around Nasariyah.

When Mr. Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad, his comrade Ismael ran to tell him the news.

"I thought he was kidding so I took the radio," Mike says. Then he heard it for himself. "I was crying, I was screaming."

The scene played out with Hollywood perfection. Only two things marred the moment for Mike. His mother passed away last year and could not share the joy, and he had no television at Talil.

"I wanted a TV. I wanted to see it with my own eyes," he says. He likened the moment to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which he had seen first-hand. Back then, he said, the East Germans came over saying they wanted Volkswagens. "In Iraq, we want freedom, and freedom will bring us the right way to rebuilding."

That night, Mike didn't sleep. He called his wife, his kids, his friends.

"I was telling everybody: The dream became true. But also I was concerned: Where is the criminal [Hussein] and his followers and regime?"

He also worries about the direction of the political process to come.

"For us, federalism or dividing of Iraq means the death of Assyria," Mike said. "The area they call Kurdistan, this is Assyria." His daughter asks: "Why does everybody have a land but us?" She wants to join her father and return to Iraq.

Whether other Iraqi exiles return to the country may prove critical to its future, Mike says. The Assyrian Democratic Movement has been working on plans to help exiles return and bring their wealth and expertise.

"If there is no stability and democracy and freedom, they will never come," says Mike. But he remains confident that these goals can be met. "If we succeed, the whole [Middle East] region will flourish."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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