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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Newest U.S. Citizens Take Oath in Iraq

Seventy-six soldiers, Marines and sailors already serving the country become Americans on the Fourth of July.

July 05, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — For most American soldiers serving in Iraq, there aren't any days off or holidays. But Independence Day was special for 76 of them, who swore an oath of allegiance here Tuesday to become citizens of the country they are fighting for in Iraq.

Most U.S. troops marked the Fourth of July by doing the exact same thing they did on July 3: patrolling the streets, training Iraqis, checking people into sleeping quarters or whatever their jobs entail.

There were no fireworks, for obvious reasons.

"You'd end up scaring the Iraqis half to death," said Maj. Mark Wright. "They'd think they were under attack." There are more than enough explosions of live ordnance.

The rat-a-tat-tat of small-arms fire in the distance is a fair approximation of a firecracker, and the crack of a mortar round sounds something like the boom of fireworks.

The clearest sign of Independence Day at the largest base in Baghdad was a dining hall festooned with red, white and blue tablecloths and streamers. A tinny rendition of "America the Beautiful" played on a small sound system.

In addition, troops took a short pause to welcome the new Americans.

In the main hall of Saddam Hussein's old hunting palace, now the chief American command post in Iraq, sailors, Marines and soldiers from 27 countries swore an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Spc. Ricardo Cortez flew to Camp Victory from Ramadi, one of the most hotly contested cities in Iraq, where he has spent the last few weeks clearing roads of improvised explosive devices.

His unit has cleared about 80 roadside bombs in the last four months. He said he appreciated the break but insisted, rather convincingly, that he was eager to get back to the bombs.

"I love my job," said Cortez, who moved to Austin, Texas, from Mexico six years ago. "It's dangerous, yeah. There are always things being blown up. We've lost a couple of vehicles. But we make sure other people can drive safely."

Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a speech that there were similarities between Iraq's struggle and that of the colonists in 1776.

"It took the commitment of our founding fathers and the Continental Army to secure America's position in the free world, much as the Iraqi leaders and Iraqi army are working to secure a free Iraq," Casey said. "It also took five years of hard fighting to do it."

Casey lauded the 76 new Americans and thanked them for signing up to fight for their new country, and for Iraq.

"There is no doubt in my mind that you, the current generation of Americans, have the courage and perseverance to lead our nation to victory in its most complex struggle yet, the war on terror," Casey said. "I am confident that we and our Iraqi colleagues will be successful in bringing security and stability here to Iraq."

Marine Lance Cpl. Isidro Morales, a 21-year-old from Mexico who is stationed in Twentynine Palms, Calif., said Iraq was giving them some new perspective.

"I am happy to be a part of the United States, I really am," Morales said. "This whole Iraq thing makes you appreciate everything more."

The U.S. generals laced their speeches with cracks at the British, the villains of Independence Day but their most loyal allies in Iraq. When Army Spc. Andrew Wellington took his turn to shake Casey's hand, the general cried out: "He's English!" Wellington, the new American, proclaimed afterward that he had always been a fan of celebrating the Fourth of July.

"I am all for self-determination," Wellington said. "If I had been over there at the time I probably would have fought on the side of the revolutionaries as well."

Army Sgt. Jose Deleon, 23, originally of Guatemala and now of Temecula tried to apply for citizenship during his first deployment overseas in 2001, but the paperwork got fouled up. So, in January, when his unit, the 250th Transportation Company from El Monte, was activated a second time he applied again.

"It's kind of ironic it's in a foreign country, but it's great, it feels awesome," Deleon said.

Included in the oath, which is required of all naturalized citizens, is a pledge to "bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law."

"I thought about those words," Deleon said. "It's my second time of serving the country. But my country has given me so much, I am grateful for it, and that is why I serve."

Abdelkader Berra, once from Casablanca, Morocco, and now of Brooklyn, N.Y., is working as a linguist for the 4th Infantry Division translating Arabic to English. It is, he says, far better than his old gig.

"I used to be a taxi driver. I couldn't take it. I had to change my life. So I joined the military," Berra said. "And I wanted my citizenship."

Berra looked particularly excited when he accepted his certificate from Casey. After the ceremony, he was beaming.

"I made it now," he said. "I am an American citizen."

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