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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Family Distraught Over Marine's Plight

June 29, 2004|David Kelly and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

WEST JORDAN, Utah — The family of Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, distraught over the apparent kidnapping of their son in Iraq, spent Monday huddled in their home just south of Salt Lake City and asked the world to pray for the release of their child.

"In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate," said Tarek Nosseir, a family friend who is acting as a spokesman, "we ask all of the people of the world to pray for the safe return of Wassef and all hostages in Iraq."

The family, who covered the windows in their large home with heavy drapes to keep reporters from looking inside, said it would release no further statements for the time being.

On a videotape delivered to the Al Jazeera satellite television channel Sunday, 24-year-old Hassoun is seen blindfolded, with a sword held over his head.

A group calling itself the Islamic Response included a message saying Hassoun would be beheaded unless Iraqis being held in "occupation jails" were released. No deadline was given.

Hassoun, assigned to the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, was serving as a translator and cultural liaison between the Marines and the Iraqi civilian population. He also worked as a driver when Marines visited farms and villages in the far-flung Al Anbar province, the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle. Part of the Marine mission is to convince Iraqis that Americans are in their country as liberators, not occupiers.

The military had listed Hassoun as "UA" since he failed to report for duty June 20. The initials stand for Unauthorized Absence, a term applied when Marines, for example, fail to return from leave.

"Based on his personal situation, there was reason to suspect that he was heading over to Lebanon," Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad.

Salt Lake City's tightknit Muslim community expressed revulsion at the kidnapping. Many remembered Hassoun as a thoroughly American young man who occasionally attended services at the city's two mosques.

"He was easygoing, not very religious," Irshad Aadil said as he was leaving the Masjid Al Noor, a mosque in downtown Salt Lake City. "Wassef and his brother Sami were very well integrated into American culture."

Aadil believed that somehow Hassoun would be freed, perhaps because the kidnappers could get something in exchange for a Marine or because they would not kill a fellow Muslim.

"I don't think they will kill them, I think they will hold them until they get something in return," he said.

At the Khadeeja mosque here, where the Hassoun family regularly worships, Imam Shuiab-ud Din held a prayer service Monday night asking for the safe return of the hostage.

"The Hassouns have a lot of recognition in the community," Din said, referring the family's six sons. "They are grieving a lot right now. The males are holding up better than the mother, who is very upset as you would expect. My advice to them was to be patient and, God willing, Wassef will be released."

The imam said Hassoun didn't attend the mosque as much as his brothers, due largely to his commitments in the military.

Hassoun was born in northern Lebanon and immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. He is a U.S. citizen and is married, officials said. Before enlisting in the Marine Corps, he lived with his brother Mohammed in West Jordan about 12 miles south of Salt Lake City.

In Tripoli, Lebanon, Hassoun's father, Ali Mohammed Hassoun, called for the group holding his son to release him. He told Associated Press that his son has not been involved in combat between Marines and insurgents.

"I appeal to the kidnappers, and to their conscience and faith, to release my son," Hassoun said. "He is not a fighter. I hope that they will respond favorably to my appeal. May God reward them."

At the Marine base in Fallouja, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said that the Marines would never agree to the demand to release Iraqi prisoners.

"We don't negotiate with terrorists," said the spokesman, Maj. T.V. Johnson. After Hassoun was reported missing, Marines began a search and interviewed all troops who had had recent contact with him.

Johnson said Marines could not explain how Hassoun might have been captured. In the Al Jazeera video, the Islamic Response group said he was "lured" off a Marine base but did not provide details.

Sami Hassoun, Wassef Hassoun's brother, told Associated Press in Tripoli that contacts were being made with Arab politicians and Islamic groups in Iraq to enlist their help in freeing the U.S. corporal.

"We are trying to send word through all channels that he is a Lebanese, Arab and a Muslim," another family member was quoted as saying.

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