QALAT SUKAR, Iraq -- Khuder al-Emeri, translator for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), was a leader in his Shiite town's uprising against Saddam Hussein following Operation Desert Storm. The rebellion was crushed, leaving him with a bounty on his head of 50,000 Iraqi dinars, and nowhere to hide from the Ba'ath party's vengeance. With no other choice, he sought refuge in the United States with relatives in Seattle -- leaving his wife and sons behind, with a promise that someday he would return -- and that they would all be free.
Twelve years later, after joining forces with the 24th MEU, the 43-year-old restaurateur returned to his hometown of Qalat Sukar and fulfilled his promise to his family and his people. After more than a decade of living in exile, he was reunited with his family, including his two young sons in a tearful moment while hundreds cheered.
The 24th MEU entered his town in the final days of the war to spread the message that the Marines came in peace, to destroy symbols of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath party, and not to harm its residents.
As the message blared from loudspeakers mounted on armored humvees, anxious villagers gathered around to witness the imminent destruction of the regime's icons. Marines established blocking positions, keeping the curious onlookers in a safe area, while others wired detonation cord to a concrete billboard in front of the Secret Police headquarters, bearing a giant painting of Saddam Hussein.
"FIRE IN THE HOLE!" a Marine shouted, and the rest ran for cover. After about 60 seconds, an explosion echoed though the edge of town. The concussion shook those nearest the blast, which took off the most of the deposed dictator's face. The villagers were immediately whipped into a frenzy of joy and excitement, and cheers and tears emanated from the crowd. Marines of the 24th MEU strained to keep the tide of emotion from washing over them, as villagers surged ahead offering flowers and embraces.
It was then that al-Emeri took the microphone and made an announcement over the loudspeaker -- advising the crowd to remain a safe distance away from the Marines, to ensure everyone's safety and the success of the mission. This resulted in an unusual reaction from the crowd; they immediately backed up as directed, but with a commotion on one end. A ripple traveled through the group from back to front, and a man emerged with a teenage boy at his side - al Emeri's brother, who recognized his voice, and Khuder's 15- year-old son, Ali, whom he hadn't seen since he was a toddler.
A torrent of tears followed as he was reunited with his members of his family. He cried as they passed news of the death of an older brother just days earlier, but he took solace in the moment of reunion as he embraced his younger brother and two youngest sons.
Khuder al-Emeri left Seattle three months ago to join the Free Iraqi Forces, and was assigned to the Civil Affairs Detachment of the 24th MEU. "I came to help my people...to help them establish a democratic government," he said. He serves as a guide and interpreter, assisting with all phases of operations.
It was an ideal match for him and for the MEU, said Capt. Brian Reynaldo, the Civil Affairs Detachment officer-in-charge. "Operating in his hometown and this region, it worked out perfectly," Reynaldo said. Qalat Sukar is approximately 60 miles north of An Nasariyah, and was essentially bypassed by elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force on their push to Baghdad.
Al-Emeri came to the unit with hope that he could locate his family in the city of more than 45,000, but didn't realize it would happen immediately. But the timing wasn't the only thing that caught him off guard. While hundreds of villagers chanted to the Marines in Arabic, "the suffering is over" and "STAY, STAY, USA" in English, al-Emeri was mobbed by several of the townsfolk.
"This man came to me, and he was hugging me and crying and kissing me, and after a couple of minutes, I asked him who he was, and it was my brother! I didn't recognize him; I hadn't seen him in 18 years; he had been a prisoner of war in Iran since 1985," he said. For him, that moment was nearly overwhelming. "I was crying, (there were) too many people talking, meeting, hugging, kissing...(There was) good news, bad news, same day, same time," he said.
The Iraqi-American comes from a large family, with nine brothers and five sisters. Four of his brothers are in America. One is also a member of the Free Iraqi Forces serving with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and another, a restaurant owner in the Seattle area, like Khuder. "His restaurant is in downtown Everett (Wash)... I lost my restaurant (in Seattle) after 9/11, business just went away," he said, shrugging.
Before his exile from Iraq, he owned a restaurant in Qalat Sukar named As Salaam, or "The Peace" in Arabic, but it was seized by the Ba'ath party along with his other businesses. Ba'ath party members in Qalat Sukar had also been drawing designs on his brother and sister there shortly before the Marines arrived, he said. Upon entering the party headquarters, Marines found an upstairs office with several shelves full of record books. The books contained dossiers on every citizen in the town. "It is written here how people travel, how they work, their (finances), even how they bring up their children." Another book highlighted those the party considered suspect, and outlined detailed plans for them. He discovered active warrants authorizing police to bring in his brother and sister for "questioning." Iraqi citizens brought in for interrogation were often never seen or heard from again, he said.
During his period of exile, the member of the Free Iraqi Fighters had been working with the Iraqi National Congress, a London based opposition group committed to regime change. "All of my tribe agrees with the opposition," he said. His tribe, the Rabeeah, comprises 25 percent of the population of Iraq, and his cousin is second in command in the Iraqi National Congress.
Now that his town has been liberated, his outlook is very optimistic. "We had democracy from 1921 until 1958- the problem was Saddam Hussein...Now we want the US and the UN watching us establish democracy." He is also grateful to the United States and looks forward to returning home to resume his life with his family. "The only one who could eliminate Saddam Hussein is the U.S. - not even the entire Arab nation."
At the end of the day of his initial reunion, his son, Ali, was extremely reluctant to see him leave Qalat Sukar and head back with Marines of the 24th MEU, but Khuder reassured him. "Stay home. You are safe. I am here; the U.S. forces are here."