Patriot Acts

Far from his Kurdish home, Adnan Kirkuki seeks out soldiers to defend his new one in the United States

The two soldiers he'd been riding with had also survived, and they called for a helicopter. At the hospital, doctors stitched up gashes in his leg, chin and head and determined that his back was badly injured, though not broken. He and his other siblings didn't tell Kirkuki what happened because they didn't want to worry him. Violence had been on the upswing in Kirkuk as Arabs resisted Kurdish attempts to reclaim the city as part of an autonomous Kurdistan.

"I'm worried all the time, because what he's doing is very risky," Kirkuki says. "Not just for him, but for everyone—my sisters, my other brothers. He's working for the Americans, and if the bad guys find out..."

When Kirkuki helped his brother get the Army job three years ago, Northern Iraq was awash with optimism and zeal, and the violence that has become an everyday nightmare in Kirkuk hadn't yet taken root. After six years in Texas, Kirkuki had returned to Iraq in the wake of the invasion to work as an American military translator. When he arrived, his brother was working long hours as a clerk in a shoe store. He told Kirkuki he wanted to work for the Army too, and Kirkuki promised to help.

In Iraq in 2003 as a civilian translator under contract with the U.S. Air Force, Kirkuki (center) poses with Kirkuk's mayor and city council members.
In Iraq in 2003 as a civilian translator under contract with the U.S. Air Force, Kirkuki (center) poses with Kirkuk's mayor and city council members.
Kirkuki in front of the base's command post building in Iraq.
Kirkuki in front of the base's command post building in Iraq.

After all, in the years since he'd last seen his kid brother, Kirkuki had gone from a refugee foraging for food in the mountains to an American resident with a decent-paying job and a family of his own. He'd put so much distance between himself and his hometown that sometimes it seemed as if several lifetimes had passed. Other times, it felt like just weeks since he and his wife were placed in Dallas and began looking for an apartment with the help of a refugee organization. His first job was serving food at the Zale Lipshy University Hospital cafeteria. His wife found work at Wal-Mart. They learned English by reading and watching television news, he switched to a job as a quality control inspector at a telecommunications company, and they had two more children.

One evening in the spring of 2003, Kirkuki saw President Bush on television talking about the possibility of regime change in Iraq. "I started crying," he says. "I said, 'Is that true? They're going to topple Saddam Hussein?'" He heard the military was hiring linguists and applied for a position with the Air Force. That August, he left for the base in Kirkuk. After the years of Saddam's "Arabization" program and recent fighting, he hardly recognized the place. "It was devastating—it was no longer Kurdish," he says. "It had become an Arabic city." His family had never been very religious, but now his brother worshipped at the mosques and his sisters covered themselves with the hijab. "I said, 'God created us free, why would you hide yourself?'" he recalls.

In the beginning, the American base in Kirkuk was hit every few nights with mortars and rockets, but the IED explosions didn't become common for another six months. People were rebuilding structures that had languished under Saddam or were destroyed in fighting, and incomes were beginning to rise. His brother's new Army job paid around $500 a month, much more than the $60 a month he'd been making in the shoe store.

On a slow February morning at the Army recruiting station in Carrollton, Kirkuki dials a list of numbers. His brother, at home in Kirkuk, picks up the phone, and he puts him on speaker. The voice that comes through is incongruously jolly given his circumstances. Since the city provides only a few hours of electricity each day, he has power only because of a generator. He's still unable to work as he recovers from his injuries, but Allen says the accident is cause for gratitude. "If I'd been on the other side of the truck, I'm dead," he says. "I thank my God I'm still alive."

Kirkuk hasn't been nearly as bloody as Baghdad or other cities to the south, but Allen's Humvee blast came at the beginning of a sharp rise in violence. A vote is scheduled to take place by the end of the year on an article in the Iraqi constitution that would "normalize" the city, meaning that the Kurdish families who were expelled during the dictatorship would be allowed to return to their homes while the Arabs living in them would be compensated by the government and forced to leave. Arab leaders are none too happy about the prospect, and Kurds claim Sunni Arabs with al-Qaida links are behind the bombings, though Arabs and Turkomen (a third ethnic group that, like the Arabs, opposes the normalization referendum) have also been targeted. In early February, there were between six and nine car bombings throughout the city in a single day. "In northern Iraq, another war—Kurd vs. Arab—looms," reads a recent Associated Press headline.

Working for the Americans is especially risky—Allen tells people he's a teacher—but even so, he loves the job. "It's the first time I've learned a new language, and it's a new culture for me," he says over the phone, describing how he's become close to a number of the American soldiers he's worked with. One even gave him a falcon tattoo on his arm. The memory makes him laugh. But he wishes he could follow them home at the end of their one-year tours.

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