Embassy Employee Risks All for a New Iraq

By Jim Garamone

BAGHDAD, Iraq — "You know that freedom is not free. There must be sacrifice. When I decided to work here, I knew and I know that it is a sacrifice. Maybe I will be killed. Who knows? But there must be people who work for their country."

A hero doesn’t necessarily have to perform brave acts on a battlefield. Sometimes, the mere act of showing up for work is heroic.

Such is the case for "Ali," a pseudonym for an Iraqi employee of the American Embassy here. If his identity were known, Ali would be a target for Iraqi insurgents – or, as he calls them – "murderers."

He is from Baghdad, and is fluent in a number of languages. "I love my country and I want to serve my country, and this is the only way I can do it," he said. "I cannot be a policeman or a soldier, because I hate shootings."

At his job, Ali serves as a bridge between Iraq and America. "We have a different culture and Americans cannot expect to impose theirs on this country," he said. He and his compatriots at the embassy help to explain the cultural gap to both sides.

He knows the pain his country is going through. He has lost friends to suicide bombers – including three friends killed in a car-bombing near "Assassin’s Gate." Others have been killed recently, including a friend who worked at the embassy’s political section.

Ali came to the job after being an interpreter for foreign journalists in Baghdad. "I had a fear and curiosity about the American forces," he said. "Fear because I don’t know those guys: strangers on tanks and Humvees traveling in Iraqi streets. And curiosity on what do these people want from my people."

He said the only way to know the truth about Americans is to know the people — to work with them, to have contact with them and see what they want. "I’m here to help my people, first, and to facilitate the American mission in Iraq, because we know Iraq better than Americans and we can say many things about Iraq," he said.

He said the upcoming election for the Iraqi national assembly is tremendously important to the country. Saddam Hussein held elections, "but there was only one candidate," Ali said. If Iraqis didn’t vote for that candidate, they were arrested or shot, he explained.

These elections will be the first truly democratic elections in Iraq’s history. "There is no legal government without the people’s approval," he said. "Elections are the first step toward democracy, and all the Middle East needs democracy. If it succeeds, Iraq will be an example for the Middle East. Everyone wants this country to be a significant country."

And it can be, he said. Iraq has not only the world’s second largest known oil reserves, but also water and arable land. Ali said Americans should remember that Mesopotamia really was the cradle of civilization. "We developed the first written language, developed agriculture and irrigation," he said. "There are many houses in Baghdad older than America."

Ali said he and his friends who work at the embassy understand the danger, but will continue to serve. "In Baghdad, danger became a relative word on the Iraqi street in general," he said. "Death is everywhere in Iraq. If I manage to escape someone who wants to kill me, I may die in a car bomb or a mortar attack.

"But here is a specific danger," he continued. "Here, I am targeted. I’m followed. I’m wanted. But when I came here, I was completely convinced to work here despite everything, and I will quit when I want to, not because I am afraid. It would be like running away."

He said his family understands his work, and said his wife is the source of his greatest support. "We have different cultures, but the same expression: ‘No one dies before his time,’" he said. "You cannot decide when you will die, and we have our religion our instruction. I am doing what my God wants. I know that when I die, I will die at the date specified by God and no one else can decide that."

Despite the danger, he has had no thought of emigrating. "There are more than 4 million Iraqis living abroad," he said. "If I quit and my folks and friends here leave Iraq, who is going to build a new Iraq?"