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A Son's Fate in the Balance

A Kuwaiti who helped the U.S. during the Gulf War is frustrated over his firstborn's detention at Guantanamo Bay as an enemy combatant.

May 05, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Iraq invaded Kuwait 13 years ago, Khaled al Odah was a freedom fighter.

A U.S.-trained colonel in the Kuwaiti air force, he helped run the 1991 Persian Gulf War's underground resistance movement in his country. He put his life -- and his family -- at risk, setting up sniper operations and identifying targets for U.S. bombers.

When allied troops came marching up the main highway into Kuwait City on liberation day, he was holding the hand of his son Fawzi, then just about to turn 14.

"He was very happy," the father recalled of his eldest child. "He was dancing, waving to them. He slipped from my hand and went down to some of the troops."

Now, once again his son has slipped away.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Fawzi al Odah was captured and turned over to American authorities in Afghanistan.

His family insists he was helping refugees fleeing into Pakistan. Nevertheless, he was flown in shackles with other captives to the detention camp at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Once again, he was surrounded by U.S. troops, with weapons pointed at him this time.

Fawzi is 25 years old. His father is 50. They have not spoken, and they have not seen each other this last year and half. It was six months before Khaled even received a short Red Cross postcard from his son.

Whether Fawzi was helping refugees or was an enemy combatant is unclear, and his fate remains in limbo. The U.S. has not revealed plans for any of the 660 detainees at Camp Delta.

None has been charged with an offense, and none has been allowed to meet with an attorney. The federal courts in Washington have characterized them as foreign enemy combatants who, because they are not being held on U.S. soil, are not eligible for due process protection.

Khaled is not allowed to see his son. Nor can he get a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City to visit Washington to lobby for help.

His plight is similar to other families with detainees on Guantanamo Bay -- wrenching in its uncertainty, hopeless in that no amount of money or good intentions, or even past deeds such as Khaled's aid to the American military, will bring a son home.

Khaled's wife, Souad, sits by the telephone. The family heard once that a detainee from Saudi Arabia was allowed to call home after he gave U.S. interrogators some important intelligence information. But the al Odah phone does not ring. Relatives say that because Fawzi is innocent, he has nothing to tell authorities, and thus nothing to gain.

Now, there has been another war -- this one in Iraq -- and American soldiers again benefited from Kuwaiti assistance.

"So I am deeply frustrated," Khaled says in a telephone interview from Kuwait. Sometimes he goes quiet for long stretches. Other times he cries. Then he apologizes for losing his composure and goes on to explain that he is retired from the Kuwaiti air force now and has supported his wife and five children in the lucrative textile business. But nothing could have prepared him for losing a son this way.

"I thought now after this new war against Iraq and the tremendous help of my country to the United States, something could happen," he said. "A lot of allies turned their backs on the United States, but my country stood up and helped them.

"The least thing for the United States government to do is to release our sons. Wouldn't it be just a small reward for Kuwait, for helping liberate Iraq?"

Khaled said he joined the Kuwaiti air force in 1973. He went to military college, and he later was sent to the U.S. for pilot training and language school in Texas.

He still cherishes photographs of himself from that time -- in his pilot jumpsuit, climbing in and out of U.S. Air Force jets, flashing the victory sign with American pilots, drinking a Coca-Cola on his day off.

He flew later in France and was assigned as a Kuwaiti attache in Paris. But he missed his growing family. So in 1986, he retired from the military and focused on the textile industry and garment manufacturing.

"It was a very, very good business at that time," he said. "Until the invasion."

The Iraqis rolled into Kuwait in 1990. Many of his old air force colleagues fled the tiny nation. Khaled said he and his family decided to stay.

"We created a resistance cell inside Kuwait," he said. "We got ourselves together and afterward we conducted some operations against the Iraqis."

He said they planned and carried out a few sniper attacks and car bombings. Using two satellite phones and identification smuggled in from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, he said, they alerted U.S. Air Force commanders in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, of potential bombing targets.

All the while, he said, he was constantly on the move, trading addresses, changing names, using fake identification cards. He told his oldest son that if the Iraqis knocked on the family door, to never abandon his father.

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