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Road to Baghdad

How the Iraq war has touched one Michigan family.

Sgt. Kristin Cruikshank with her mother, Teresa, and stepfather, Lateef Al-Saraji (on couch), in the Baghdad home of Lateef's family.
Lateef and Teresa Al-Saraji.
Photos/Courtesy the Al-Saraji family
Left, Teresa Al-Saraji (in dark glasses) with her mother-in-law and young nephew, above, a family reunion at the store on the base.
Sgt. Theodore Cruikshank (right) spent seven months in Afghanistan. He could go to Iraq soon.
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Published 10/22/2003

As family gatherings go, one that took place in Baghdad during August holds far more interest than most. Lateef Al-Saraji, an Iraqi native who has lived in the United States for the past 10 years, made the journey from his home in Erie, Mich., to visit the family left behind when he fled Iraq in 1991. Along on the trip was his wife, Teresa. On returning to the United States, she began speaking out against the occupation that has removed the oppressive thumb of Saddam Hussein but unleashed the potential for what she fears could be a “bloodbath” if the United States does not soon devise an exit strategy.

Yet it’s not only the fate of her in-laws and their countrymen fueling her concern. Sgt. Kristin Cruikshank, Teresa’s daughter and Lateef’s stepdaughter, was also on hand for this reunion. Stationed in Baghdad, her attendance required the use of a well-armed, three-vehicle convoy. Such is the danger American soldiers face in a war our president declared we had won nearly six months ago but continues to drag on with no end in sight. Which only gives Teresa more cause for worry, because her son, Theodore, is in the Army as well. He has already done a hitch in Afghanistan, and could soon join his sister and his stepfather’s family in Iraq.

Taken together, theirs is a story that brings into sharp relief the contradictions and dilemmas America faces in a country filled with dire questions but offering few certain answers.

Lateef long-distance

It is a bad day in Baghdad.

Lateef Al-Saraji is on the phone attempting to explain just how bad, but it isn’t easy. Just getting a call through to him has taken days. Now a phone line is finally open, but the connection is lousy. It is as if he’s standing in an echo chamber, with my words reverberating back as he tries to answer questions.

Having spent the past 10 years in America, his English is good, but his accent is still thick, adding to the communication problem.

Al-Saraji, who lives in Erie, just north of Toledo, is in Baghdad visiting family he hasn’t seen since he fled the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 1991, unwilling to risk his life as a conscript in the army of a tyrant. Pretending to be a soldier, he surrendered to U.S. troops during the Gulf War. A convoluted path eventually brought him to America, where he began building a life for himself. He learned English and worked hard, eventually becoming the manager of a gas station. He married a former schoolteacher, and became stepfather to her three children.

Now, with the regime of Saddam Hussein toppled, he has returned home for the first time, reuniting with the family he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. He’s been in the country for nearly two months.

I ask him what it is that Americans need to know about the situation in Iraq.

“There is much,” he says. “Much.”

First, he says, we must realize how terrible conditions are for the Iraqi people, and how desperate people are for the United States to restore the infrastructure destroyed during the war.

The scenes he describes leave a very different impression than the one provided by President George Bush during a speech given the same day of our phone conversation.

In that speech, delivered on Thursday, Oct. 9 — exactly six months after Baghdad fell — Bush stood in Manchester, N.H., and assured a group of business people that the situation in Iraq was “a lot better than you probably think.”

It was the same message sent a few days earlier during his weekly radio address. “Life is returning to normal for the Iraqi people,” the president told us. “Hospitals and universities have opened, and in many places water and other utility services are reaching prewar levels.”

Al-Saraji, 30, describes a much different Iraq, one where the water is undrinkable, sewage flows in the streets, and power outages lasting for hours and sometimes days are a constant, shutting down air-conditioning and refrigeration in a land where temperatures can reach 130 degrees.

Violence is also a constant.

“I can hear shooting and bombs going off six or seven times a day,” he says. “Just today, a few miles from this house where I am staying, there was a terrorist attack at a police station.”

According to published reports, on the day that Lateef and I talked, a day that Iraq’s American administrator Paul Bremer described as a “bump in the road,” suicide attackers crashed a speeding Oldsmobile through the gates of a police station compound and set off a bomb, killing nine people and wounding dozens.

That same morning a Spanish military attaché assigned to his country’s Baghdad embassy was gunned down outside his home by a man dressed as a cleric. That night, two American solders were killed and three wounded during a firefight in a Baghdad slum.

“If somebody wants to kill an American, he doesn’t have to work too hard,” says Al-Saraji. “It’s just like smoking a cigarette.”

Al-Saraji and his Iraqi kin are Shiite Muslims, a group making up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population. Shiites, persecuted under Saddam, have mostly welcomed the U.S. invasion. Al-Saraji’s family is decidedly pro-American. His brothers began helping coalition forces almost immediately, supplying mattresses and blankets for soldiers establishing a military base on the outskirts of Baghdad. Since then, they have been allowed to open a store to sell sodas and snacks at the nearby Army post. And they received a contract to erect a fence around the perimeter to help reduce the threat of attacks that, until recently, were launched on a nightly basis.

But that cooperation does not come without risks. The family fears retaliation from Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation. “Some people in my family,” he says, “carry weapons with them 24 hours a day.”

There are holdovers from the old Baathist regime, thugs who kill Americans officers to collect the bounty that has reportedly been placed on their heads. But there are also others: Unknown numbers of Arabs are crossing the border into Iraq to fight.

“Some of them just hate the United States,” says Lateef. “And some of them see this as a holy war.”

The problem as he sees it is that America can’t pull out. Not immediately, anyway, because as bad as things are, conditions would be far worse should we leave.

“It would be chaos,” he says.

The flip side of that coin: If the United States appears to be digging in for the long haul, then even those who see us as liberators will turn against us.

“Many people are happy for the United States being here right now,” he says. “But they can’t stay too long. The people here want their own government. They want their freedom.”

To Baghdad and back

“Gunfire was going off day and night,” Teresa Al-Saraji, 41, says about the three weeks she spent in Iraq.

“I was terrified at first, but then I got used to it. I would go up on the roof of the house to try and see what was going on.”

And what’s going on, she says, “is a lot of stuff every day that people here never hear about. I don’t think our government wants us to know what’s really going on. I think Bush and this government are deceiving people.

“Things are very sad over there. Very sad.”

She flew with her husband Lateef to Damascus, Syria, where they were met by one of his brothers, a taxi driver who made the trek across Iraq’s desert to retrieve them.

No U.S. troops were stationed at the border, she reports. All it takes to get into the country is enough money to bribe the Syrians and Iraqis guarding the border.

“Anybody can get in — everything is based on bribes,” she says, her statement chilling in the context of Lateef’s claim that Muslims from around the Arab world are converging in Iraq to fight Americans.

Along with all the other deprivation, there is the irony of gas shortages in a country that sits atop one of the world’s largest supplies of oil.

“There are lines two to three miles long with cars waiting to get gas,” she says. “Most gas stations aren’t even open.”

The Iraqis, she says, “are very frustrated by all the lawlessness, the carjackings and kidnappings and robbings.”

Unemployment is widespread. Sewage spills into the streets. In some neighborhoods trash hasn’t been collected since the U.S. bombing began in March.

The attitude among the Iraqis she met — members of Lateef’s family and their friends, all of whom are Shiites — is one of patience, but it is being strained.

“What I heard from them is that they are happy that the U.S. came in and liberated them,” she relates. “But they are beginning to feel frustrated that things haven’t changed more rapidly. Every day they are facing general anarchy. And what is very scary is the sense that, if they don’t start seeing change soon, if they start to feel that the U.S. is really there as an occupier to steal their oil, then even the Shiites are going to rise up against us. If that happens, then things are going to get very bloody.

“For now, they still have a wait-and-see attitude. But they are a proud people with an ancient civilization, and if they begin to think that the United States intends to stay there for the long term, they will not take it. They want to be governed by their own people. It’s going to be very, very bad if the Shiites end up turning against us.”

Making matters worse is an underlying mistrust of the United States based on past experience.

“The U.S. supported Saddam during the early ’80s in the war against Iran,” Teresa explains. “And the U.S. allowed Saddam to stay in power to slaughter the Shiites during the uprising that occurred at the end of the Gulf War.”

A week after Teresa spoke with me at her home in Erie, the Associated Press reported a “clash” in Baghdad between U.S. soldiers and the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, described as a radical Shiite cleric who has “called upon his followers to resist occupation troops and the U.S.-backed Iraqi governing council.”

There was a gun battle. Two American soldiers and two Iraqis were killed. U.S. officials claimed followers of al-Sadr, who has formed a militia, ambushed our soldiers. (He represents a rift that has formed within the Shiite community, some of whom, like al-Sadr, want to establish theocratic rule while others seek a secular government.)

Iraqis interviewed by reporters claimed the Americans opened fire first. Either way, reported the Associated Press, the incident “drew an angry reaction from Iraq’s Shiites.”

“A clash with Shiites could open a second front for troops already facing regular attacks in the Sunni heartland of central Iraq,” the AP reported.

The following day, an “angry” funeral procession for the two slain Iraqis drew more than 10,000 Shiites.

“Militiamen armed with assault rifles and pistols escorted the funeral procession,” reported Agence France Presse. “Raising their fists in the air, the men roared, ‘There is no god but Allah. America is the enemy of God.’”

“I’m glad we went over there and did what we did,” says Teresa. “When this all started, I was excited by the thought that we would finally be getting rid of Saddam. But we have to find a way to come home. There are lots of signs in Arabic and English saying, ‘We don’t want to be occupied by the United States.’”

The problem is, says Teresa, most people in the United States appear to be largely ignoring events in Iraq.

“I don’t think a whole lot of Americans are really thinking about what is happening,” she says.

In part, she blames the media for that. After Bush declared the combat phase of the war over six months ago, most of the journalists covering the conflict packed up and flew home.

And the media that have remained are doing a poor job, she contends.

“I feel like the media here only reports what the government wants,” she says. “And the government doesn’t want people to know what’s going on. If the American public could see what I saw going on every day, they would not tolerate us being there.”

Beyond meeting her husband’s family, and witnessing the lives of Iraqis for herself, Teresa had an additional purpose for her trip: It allowed her to visit her daughter. Kristin Cruikshank is a sergeant stationed at what used to be an amusement park on the outskirts of Baghdad. It’s the same post where Lateef’s family has opened a store.

To highlight just how dangerous the situation remains, when Kristin went to visit with her mom and Lateef at his family’s house, a three-vehicle convoy with armed soldiers aboard was required to transport her there.

The post where Kristin is stationed, says Teresa, was coming under attack nightly, with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades being fired in hit-and-run attacks.

“I really didn’t want my daughter to go into the military,” says Teresa, a onetime elementary school teacher who now manages a Burger King. “But she wanted to go to college, and she knew I couldn’t pay for it. And the Army offered her a chance to get money to pay for her education.”

Conditions at the post are primitive, Teresa reports.

“The PX is the size of a closet,” she says. “And they’re still using portable toilets. The heat is unbearable. From what I saw, the soldiers are sick and tired and want to come home.

“Put yourself in their position and imagine what they are going through. You can feel the stress and anxiety and frustration.”

Last week USA Today reported that the Pentagon, alarmed by what appears to be an unusually high number of suicides being committed by soldiers in Iraq, had asked a team of doctors to investigate. Fourteen soldiers stationed in Iraq have taken their lives in the past seven months.

“I worry that, psychologically, they can only take so much before they snap,” says Teresa, who talked with Metro Times before the news account underscored her concerns. “And I think these soldiers are really stressing out. I understand that they are still soldiers — but, my God, they are still human.”

Because of all she saw in Iraq, Teresa Al-Saraji returned home an evangelist. The word she wants to spread is one of imminent peril. Opposed to the occupation before her visit, she has taken on a higher-profile role since then. She came to the attention of Metro Times after speaking at a peace rally in September.

“I think that Bush and this government are deceiving people,” she says. “If things keep going like they are, there is going to be a bloodbath.”

Asked if she worries that speaking out might cause repercussions for her children, Teresa says that is a possibility.

“I do worry about that,” she says. “I also worry it might cause problems for Lateef’s family, because of the work they are doing for the military. But morally I feel I have to do this.”

Kristin’s e-mail

Unable to reach Teresa’s daughter Kristin by phone, I e-mailed her some questions in an attempt to get her take on the situation in Baghdad. Among other things, I asked the 22-year-old about conditions on her post, troop morale and whether there was a sense that the Bush administration had used deception to justify the invasion. This is her reply:

“The base that I am at is called Camp Ultimo and it’s at Baghdad Island, an old tourist resort. The conditions here at the island are not bad. We started out living in tents, and now we are staying in buildings. We had to clean up and fix the building a little before we moved in. We still have some work to do. The camp now has electric, which is powered by generators. The quality of life has improved a lot. We have an Internet cafe and a satellite phone where we get 10 minutes free every week.

“For a while the camp had got hit by mortar rounds almost every night. Luckily no one ever got hurt. The camp hasn’t been hit for a couple of weeks now. The soldiers are in danger the most when they go outside the gate. Soldiers have been hit with I.E.D.’s [improvised explosive devices], sniper fire, and grenade attacks. Just yesterday, the mail run people were hit with an I.E.D., but no one was killed. A couple soldiers are having problems hearing and some were hit by hot scrap metal. One guy had to be taken to Germany because of how bad the metal got him. So far, no one in my battalion has been killed. Five soldiers in my battalion have either already been awarded the Purple Heart or waiting to receive it.

“The morale of the soldiers here is about fair. Of course soldiers would rather be home with their family and out of harm’s way, but they are proud to be serving over here. The unit is trying their best to keep the soldiers’ spirits high considering we are here for a year. We have already been here for five months now.

“The unit has started to let soldiers go home on ‘environmental leave.’ Most of the soldiers who are going to be here for the whole tour will be able to go on leave. Only a small percent are predicted to not be able to go on leave.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can really touch on whether or not the troops feel deceived. I will say that most of us soldiers are proud to say we were part of the removal of the harsh Iraqi Dictator and his government.

“Yes, I think all the troops here are making a difference in making America safer. We all do our part. Whether it’s going on raids, patrols, feeding the soldiers, providing medical attention, or repairing the equipment, we all contribute.

“Every day our life is in danger to make America and Iraq a safer place. Almost all of the convoy attacks from my battalion have been towards the ‘support’ soldiers. Most of the purple hearts in my battalion have been given to soldiers in the Headquarters Company which is made up of logistics, mechanics, cooks, fuelers and other support soldiers. These soldiers leave the gate every single day.

“I’m a sergeant and I’ve been in for 4 years. I’m assigned to a combat engineer unit, the 16th Engineer Battalion, 1st Armor Division. I joined the military as a cook to serve my country. I consider myself a very patriotic person. Every time I hear the National Anthem, I get teary eyed. I’m very glad to say that I was able to serve my country over here.”

Waiting for the call

Unlike his mother, sister and stepfather, Sgt. Theodore “T.J.” Cruikshank has never been to Iraq. He is prepared, however, to be deployed there at any time.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time he served in a war zone.

He spent seven months in Afghanistan as part of the effort to disband the Taliban government there and ferret out Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network to help prevent a repeat of the tragedy of Sept. 11.

“I believed in what we were doing over there,” he says in a phone interview from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

A shop foreman, Cruikshank, 21, supervised mechanical work on humvees, making sure all the equipment was “mission capable.”

His camp there was located in a mountainous region south of Kabul.

He described Afghanistan as being “no playground.” Although his camp was fairly secure, there would be ambushes and “a couple of rocket attacks every now and then.”

Now that he’s back in the States he pays close attention to Iraq. And he’s not happy about what he sees.

“I think it is bullshit that we went over there and still haven’t found nothing yet [in terms of weapons of mass destruction].

“It is great that we are liberating the country. I heard a lot of gruesome stories about Saddam from my stepdad, so I was all for getting rid of him and liberating the country. But the way we did it was really messed up. We should have got more nations to go in with us. People like me, we started out with a cause — to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. I definitely feel deceived. I think all of America feels deceived.”

Cruikshank is also feeling a cold shoulder. He saw it happen in Afghanistan. As soon as the invasion of Iraq began gearing up, attention shifted; even though soldiers were still fighting and dying there, no one seemed much interested. And now the same thing is happening in Iraq. The media is more focused on the World Series than the body bags arriving one or two at a time.

“Soldiers are being attacked every day, soldiers die every day, but it seems like people are not paying attention,” says Cruikshank.

And that antipathy is hard to bear when you are prepared to lay your life on the line.

“I’m proud of what I did, and I’m proud of what I’m doing,” he says. “You come back home expecting a warm welcome, and it’s not so warm. It’s as if it’s not something immediate, the media doesn’t pay attention.

“I grew up playing sports,” he explains by way of analogy. “And I learned that fans can help turn a game around. But when you don’t have people behind you, morale goes down. And if you don’t have people believing in your cause, and you lose your life, then your death is in vain.

“People need to know what’s going on.

“But a lot of this is over my head. My job is to follow orders, not question them.”

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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