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An Iraqi woman's taste of freedom turns sour

Sarah never wanted to work for the Americans, but soon their military base became her second home, and a confidence she never dreamed of took root. How could they believe she would betray them?

February 04, 2010|By Ned Parker
  • Sarah, right, visits an Iraqi school during her time as an interpreter for the U.S. military. On the day she was accused of being a spy, her captain told her, "Sarah, just tell them the truth."
Sarah, right, visits an Iraqi school during her time as an interpreter for…

Reporting from Baghdad — In jail, Sarah had imagined herself sitting on Oprah's stage. The talk show host would listen sympathetically to the Iraqi widow's story. The audience would applaud as she told how she had made hardened militants cry while she helped grill them for the U.S. military. They would know, despite the rumors, that she had never betrayed the Americans.

Now that she was free, Sarah concentrated on a letter: "In the name of God, Dear Oprah, peace be upon you," she typed. "I'm sure you're going to be a little surprised because a lady from Iraq is writing to you, a woman from America. When I was in jail, I decided to . . . tell [you] my entire story with the American Army in Iraq."

She no longer looked like the woman in the photos from her Army days -- her auburn hair pulled back, wearing the fatigues, bulletproof vest and wraparound sunglasses that made Iraqis mistake her for a man. On the street, no one would guess that the 40-year-old mother of two teenage boys had been a scourge of Shiite death squads, or that she no longer trusts the Americans who once needed her.

About a stay-at-home wife who found bittersweet emancipation against the backdrop of a brutal civil war, Sarah's story is one of the freedom and loss that has marked the lives of most Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Americans: Spring 2007

Sarah never wanted to work for the U.S. Army. Her husband, Ahmed, volunteered her.

In a chance encounter, Sarah's 11-year-old son had impressed some American soldiers with his English and the boy's father bragged that Sarah had taught him. The soldiers urged Ahmed to send her to them.

Sarah, a university dropout, had a gift for languages, learning English through movies like "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" and songs by ABBA and the Bee Gees.

Ahmed, a mechanic who had lost his business in a Shiite neighborhood, pleaded with his wife to take the job. Still haunted by the firebombing that had forced the Sunni family from their home, she told him she would be killed, but he refused to listen.

For the first time in their 18-year marriage, he was permitting her to work. Even now, Sarah suspects that her husband pushed her to take the job because he was desperate for money and didn't care enough about her safety. She was hired at Camp Falcon, a giant base in southeast Baghdad.

"I knew nothing about the Americans. It was a new world to me. I had never been in the same place with foreign people. . . . All I knew was what I saw on movies and TV," she said. "When I heard them laughing, I thought to myself: 'What am I doing here? I should be in the house with my boys, taking care of them.' "

The other interpreters asked her to pick an American name. Some called themselves Styles, or Travis. She chose Sarah because it was her niece's name. For security reasons, that name is being used for this report.

She soon found herself wearing a green uniform and walking across the gravel lot to the convoy of Capt. Bill Higgins' Alpha Company, 1st Infantry Division. Her former self, a woman who wore heart-shaped necklaces, had vanished along with her real name.

In meetings with informants and tribal sheiks, she impressed Higgins with her ability to get people to talk freely, and even on the phone. Soon Higgins asked her to coordinate meetings and help smuggle sources onto the base, unnoticed by armed groups and the national police.

Tips started to roll in about the Mahdi Army, the main Shiite militia in the district; its members killed people, planted bombs and ran extortion rings. Sarah started asking for more time to talk with people on the street. She'd hand out her number and get calls offering information on where the Mahdi Army's bombs were hidden to target troops.

Higgins joked that they should call her Iron Woman. She joined in the interrogations of detainees. She bragged that she could push them to tears: "I would talk with them about their families and babies. That they are young, and who was going to take care of their babies and wife. That someone would take their place."

Some of Alpha Company's informants told her that militia fighters knew who she was and wanted her dead, but that only made her more confident.

"They are all rats; they hide themselves in holes. If they were really brave men, let them face me," she would reply. Sometimes the prisoners kissed Sarah's boots, begging her to help them.

At community meetings, when she took off her sunglasses, helmet and bulletproof vest, tribal leaders were stunned to learn her gender. "She is a woman, she is a woman," they would whisper.

At home, she began challenging her husband, who often picked fights with her and ordered her around.

"I started to stay away from him and not talk with him because he hurt my feelings many times," she said. Sometimes the captain would intervene to try to cool tempers between them.

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