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Sunday, March 23

Iraqi Freedom Fighter part of U.S. Marine unit

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

WITH THE 1ST MARINE EXPEDITIONARY FORCE, Southern Iraq - Hours into the war, a group of Iraqi shepherds turned and ran at the sight of a U.S. Marines convoy.

"Don't run!" Arka Arkawazi shouted in Arabic from a Marine Humvee. "We are here to help."

Within minutes, Arkawazi made friends with the shepherds, who soon led Marines to an Iraqi Army stash of 12 AK-47 rifles, three anti-aircraft guns and military documents.

Arkawazi, who lived in Dearborn, Mich., the past three years, is one of an unknown number of Iraqi Freedom Fighters who once fled the regime of Saddam Hussein only to return now with the U.S. military invasion force.

"I've waited for this for 10 years," said Arkawazi, a 39-year-old Shiite Muslim from an undisclosed town in central Iraq.

The one-time Iraqi soldier fled his homeland a decade ago, and lived in Lebanon and Cyprus before settling with some 10,000 other Iraqi refugees in Dearborn. When his Marine unit crossed the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq several days ago, it was a moment of pure joy.

"I kissed the dust," he said.

Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary for the Department of Defense, personally recruited Dearborn Shiites in late February to join the fight in Iraq. By then, Arkawazi, a part-time truck driver in Detroit, already had been with Marines for two months, receiving military and interpreter training.

At Dearborn's New Yasmeen Bakery, brothers Fred and Frank Hattar, and their friend Edie Dalou, were pleased but hardly surprised by Arkawazi's fervor.

``Why wouldn't he be a patriotic volunteer?'' Fred Hattar said. ``America is his country too.''

``He's a brave man,'' Dalou said, as the others nodded.

``We should have gone in,'' Frank Hattar said. ``We had to do something; this is about oil and it's about freedom.''

On Sunday, Arkawazi looked every bit like a Marine in the standard-issue helmet, flak jacket and chemical suit, a Marlboro Light squeezed between his lips.

He doesn't carry a gun. His weapon is information.

"He's a hero in his own country," said Marine Maj. Mark Stainbrook, Arkawazi's commanding officer. "For us, he is part of our safety."

In three days of travel through sparsely populated Iraqi territory, Arkawazi interpreted for 40 Marine encounters with civilians. His job is to gather useful information and help keep civilians from U.S. troops on the move.

"All the people are happy to have us here," Arkawazi said, as his unit headed north toward a series of towns and cities that eventually lead to Baghdad. "Tomorrow will be better than today."

As Arkawazi prepared to pull out of a makeshift camp Sunday morning, other Marines guarded nearly 100 Iraqi prisoners of war. The POWs sat in tight circles, surrounded by barbed wire, below a highway overpass, as Marine tanks rumbled overhead. Some POWs sat barefoot, drinking bottled water, after they were searched.

Marines prevented a reporter from approaching the POWs.

(Contributing: Detroit News staff writer Tom Greenwood)