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A U.S. forces playing card with Saddam Hussein’s face sits on a shelf behind Othman Hamed in Dustin Awtrey’s insurance office in Decatur.
Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.
A U.S. forces playing card with Saddam Hussein’s face sits on a shelf behind Othman Hamed in Dustin Awtrey’s insurance office in Decatur.

al-Qaida’s reach

Former Iraqi interpreter finds a home in Decatur

By Ronnie Thomas · 340-2438

“You’re too big,” an interpreter with Maj. Dustin Awtrey’s 15-man team said as they reclaimed a new government building in Baqubah, Iraq, from insurgents.

Before the officer could respond with a funny remark about his size — or duck — a sniper’s bullet whizzed about four inches past his head and slammed into a wall.

Awtrey was the only American on the team, and he was in Othman Hamed’s hometown. Hamed, whose Arabic name means “Desert Snake,” had a feeling snakes were crawling, just as the sun began to set.

A marked man

Hamed, 25, nicknamed “Snake” by members of the coalition forces, and Awtrey found themselves in several other tight spots before parting. Hamed and his pregnant wife escaped to Damascus, Syria, days after al-Qaida killed one of his six brothers May 1. The terrorist group twice attempted to blow up his parents’ home.

After serving as interpreter for three years, he, too, had become a marked man.

Awtrey returned to Decatur on June 19 but he and Maj. Jim Bowie of Huntsville couldn’t forget the plight of Snake and another interpreter, Mazin “Tiger” Mozan, a single man who retreated to Cairo, Egypt. His father lost an eye when al-Qaida bombed his house in Kut.

“They are special,” Awtrey said, “and it didn’t take us long to discover that. We arrived in Iraq on June 20, 2006, and that October we started with the State Department in an effort to get them relocated to America. The government has special visas for Iraqis who worked with or supported coalition forces.”

The paperwork had to be in by Dec. 31. While Awtrey was still in Iraq and before Hamed left for Syria, the National Visa Center contacted Awtrey to tell him the center had the applications. From that point, officials dealt directly with Hamed and Mozan.

A surprise arrival

Hamed had taken his first airplane ride from Damascus to Jordan, and then into Chicago. He stayed overnight and used the Ramada Inn’s business center to e-mail Awtrey that he would arrive in Birmingham on Sept. 16 at 9:15 a.m.

Awtrey, an avid Auburn fan, was on the Plains the day before to watch Mississippi State defeat the Tigers. He came home that night, still sulking from the loss, and didn’t check his e-mails until Sunday morning.

Othman Hamed with Dustin Awtrey. Hamed was an interpreter for Awtrey’s unit in Iraq.
Othman Hamed with Dustin Awtrey. Hamed was an interpreter for Awtrey’s unit in Iraq.
Awtrey opened the e-mail at 10:30, turned to his wife, Angela, and said, “What do we do? He’s waiting for us.”

Or so he thought. Within two minutes of getting the message, the doorbell rang.

“There stood Snake,” Awtrey said. “I was stunned. I wondered how he pulled this off. He had been in this country only a short time and he found his way to my doorstep. Unbelievable. But he saved me a trip.”

Hamed said he walked outside the airport at Birmingham, looking for a way to Decatur.

“A taxi drove up,” he said. “Ironically, he was a Palestinian. We talked Arabic all the way in. The fare was $160.”

In September, Hamed’s wife and 4-month-old daughter had traveled by car to Northern Iraq, where her family lives.

“He is on a permanent resident visa,” Awtrey said. “As soon as he becomes employed and established, he will send for his wife.”

Hamed, who began learning English the last two years of high school, was a college engineering student.

“I’m not believing yet that I’m in America,” he said. “It’s a big, big difference from where I was. It is a big dream come true.”

His friend arrived in Huntsville on Monday night.

Hamed, a Sunni, said he hopes that much more is resolved before U.S. troops leave Iraq.

“I don’t like the Iraqi government because they act like sectarians,” he said. “And the higher-ranked officers inside the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police are Mahdi militia.”

Awtrey concedes that as soon as Americans put their feet on Iraqi soil, al-Qaida became involved.

“We were the infidels, a non-Muslim army in a Muslim land,” he said. “But despite what it might look like at times on the news, as unstable as the country might appear, we are the stabilizing force there.”

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