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Iraqi goes from translator for US Army to soldier

Thursday - 6/5/2014, 2:58pm  ET

BRETT BARROUQUERE
Associated Press

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) -- In the months after American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Abdulla Mizead would look warily as soldiers carrying heavy weapons patrolled his neighborhood in Najaf.

Normally, he would keep his distance. But one afternoon he approached some American troops stopped on a street after seeing them having a tough time communicating with an Iraqi man.

The man had been trying to tell the Americans about detainees in a presidential palace who were trapped. The man, an engineer, had built the palace.

"That staff sergeant just goes nuts about it," Mizead said. "And, he (the Iraqi) is yelling at him, 'You need to come with me right now!'"

Mizead, 25 at the time, had learned English growing up around the world and stepped in to help translate.

A few minutes later, he started to walk away and a sergeant asked him to wait. The soldiers needed a translator to replace a Kuwaiti who was returning home. Would he be interested? Unemployed at the time, translating seemed like an adventure, a chance for Mizead to see parts of Iraq he had never visited.

He agreed and that encounter set him on an improbable course that has brought him full circle with the invading American forces who many Iraqis still blame for the ills plaguing the country: He is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell.

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Born in Iraq, Mizead grew up internationally as the son of an Iraqi diplomat whose assignments took him to Mozambique; London, where he learned English; Washington; and Tanzania. Mizead and his family returned to Iraq in 1990, around the time President Saddam Hussein was invading neighboring Kuwait.

After graduating from high school in Iraq, Mizead earned a bachelor's degree and then a master's in English literature from the University of Baghdad, where he relished digging into the works of American literary greats like playwright Eugene O'Neill.

Like for all Iraqis, the U.S.-led invasion upended daily life for Mizead's family. Overnight, American soldiers were patrolling major cities, and Mizead kept his distance -- until the day he stepped in to translate.

At first, Mizead had mixed feelings about helping American soldiers. As Shia Muslims, his family had been oppressed for years by the minority ruling Sunnis and Saddam Hussein -- some of his father's cousins were killed during the failed 1991 Shia uprising -- so anything to help topple that system seemed worthwhile. Still, like many Iraqis, he had grown up hearing propaganda about the evils of America.

A month after he began translating for American troops, Mizead started working with the 1st Battalion, 187th infantry, a Fort Campbell-based unit known as the "Rakkasans" -- a term the unit ironically got from a Japanese translator after World War II who couldn't immediately come up with the word for airborne unit so used called them "rakkasan," or "falling down umbrella men."

Over the course of three months, Mizread interpreted as troops moved north from Baghdad to Tikrit and Mosul. It was the adventure the man was hoping for when he first signed up, and the Iraqi native brought an expertise to the job that few others would have had.

While working with an intelligence division in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, Mizead's family background came into play. The area was filled with Shiite Turkmen who refused to speak to any of the Kurdish interpreters the Army had been using -- a remnant of the long-standing animosity between Turks and Kurds in northern Iraq.

Mizead noticed a picture of a Shiite saint hanging in the house of a village elder.

"I said 'You're Turkmen, right? Shiite Turkmen?'" Mizead asked. "And as soon as I told them I was from Najaf, my parents were from Najaf, they just loved me."

Working north of Baghdad, Mizead followed the soldiers into several towns and villages that backed Saddam's Baath party. Back at the battalion base, Mizead would always lay out for intelligence officers his impressions of people he interviewed while on a mission.

"This guy's faking it. This guy's hiding something," Mizead recalled telling an officer. "I'm just giving him my gut feeling."

As the military moved north, Mizead hoped to go to the Kurdistan region near the Turkish border -- a place he had never been. However, the Army had other plans and headed west instead, and he never made it to Kurdistan. Ready for something new, Mizead took a job with National Public Radio, where he was "the street guy."

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