An Iraqi woman's taste of freedom turns sour

In jail, Sarah had imagined herself sitting on Oprah's stage. The talk show host would listen sympathetically to the Iraqi widow's story. The audience would applaud as she told how she had made hardened militants cry while she helped grill them for the U.S. military. They would know, despite the rumors, that she had never betrayed the Americans.

Now that she was free, Sarah concentrated on a letter: "In the name of God, Dear Oprah, peace be upon you," she typed. "I'm sure you're going to be a little surprised because a lady from Iraq is writing to you, a woman from America. When I was in jail, I decided to . . . tell [you] my entire story with the American Army in Iraq."

She no longer looked like the woman in the photos from her Army days -- her auburn hair pulled back, wearing the fatigues, bulletproof vest and wraparound sunglasses that made Iraqis mistake her for a man. On the street, no one would guess that the 40-year-old mother of two teenage boys had been a scourge of Shiite death squads, or that she no longer trusts the Americans who once needed her.

About a stay-at-home wife who found bittersweet emancipation against the backdrop of a brutal civil war, Sarah's story is one of the freedom and loss that has marked the lives of most Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Americans: Spring 2007

Sarah never wanted to work for the U.S. Army. Her husband, Ahmed, volunteered her.

In a chance encounter, Sarah's 11-year-old son had impressed some American soldiers with his English and the boy's father bragged that Sarah had taught him. The soldiers urged Ahmed to send her to them.

Sarah, a university dropout, had a gift for languages, learning English through movies like "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" and songs by ABBA and the Bee Gees.

Ahmed, a mechanic who had lost his business in a Shiite neighborhood, pleaded with his wife to take the job. Still haunted by the firebombing that had forced the Sunni family from their home, she told him she would be killed, but he refused to listen.

For the first time in their 18-year marriage, he was permitting her to work. Even now, Sarah suspects that her husband pushed her to take the job because he was desperate for money and didn't care enough about her safety. She was hired at Camp Falcon, a giant base in southeast Baghdad.

"I knew nothing about the Americans. It was a new world to me. I had never been in the same place with foreign people. . . . All I knew was what I saw on movies and TV," she said. "When I heard them laughing, I thought to myself: 'What am I doing here? I should be in the house with my boys, taking care of them.' "

The other interpreters asked her to pick an American name. Some called themselves Styles, or Travis. She chose Sarah because it was her niece's name. For security reasons, that name is being used for this report.

She soon found herself wearing a green uniform and walking across the gravel lot to the convoy of Capt. Bill Higgins' Alpha Company, 1st Infantry Division. Her former self, a woman who wore heart-shaped necklaces, had vanished along with her real name.

In meetings with informants and tribal sheiks, she impressed Higgins with her ability to get people to talk freely, and even on the phone. Soon Higgins asked her to coordinate meetings and help smuggle sources onto the base, unnoticed by armed groups and the national police.

Tips started to roll in about the Mahdi Army, the main Shiite militia in the district; its members killed people, planted bombs and ran extortion rings. Sarah started asking for more time to talk with people on the street. She'd hand out her number and get calls offering information on where the Mahdi Army's bombs were hidden to target troops.

Higgins joked that they should call her Iron Woman. She joined in the interrogations of detainees. She bragged that she could push them to tears: "I would talk with them about their families and babies. That they are young, and who was going to take care of their babies and wife. That someone would take their place."

Some of Alpha Company's informants told her that militia fighters knew who she was and wanted her dead, but that only made her more confident.

"They are all rats; they hide themselves in holes. If they were really brave men, let them face me," she would reply. Sometimes the prisoners kissed Sarah's boots, begging her to help them.

At community meetings, when she took off her sunglasses, helmet and bulletproof vest, tribal leaders were stunned to learn her gender. "She is a woman, she is a woman," they would whisper.

At home, she began challenging her husband, who often picked fights with her and ordered her around.

"I started to stay away from him and not talk with him because he hurt my feelings many times," she said. Sometimes the captain would intervene to try to cool tempers between them.

"Capt. Higgins helped me so much to get over many bad things in my life," she recalled much later. "He saw something in me. 'Sarah,' he said, 'you are smart and have the talent to do many things.' . . . He taught me to be patient. Maybe he even taught me to be strong because he was a strong man."

Higgins' company left Iraq in late 2007, but he made Sarah promise that she would stay and work with Capt. Michael Berriman and the next batch of officers from Charlie Company. Berriman liked to tease her about Higgins. He would tell his men, "Ask the 'terp' who she likes more -- me or Capt. Higgins." And Sarah would answer, "My Capt. Higgins, of course."

The base had become her other home. She awoke at sunrise, praying in her room, drinking her Nescafe and milk, and then wandering over to the command center to chat with the sergeants.

It was on one of these mornings at the base that she received the phone call: "Abu Mustapha is dead." She didn't understand who the caller meant.

Your husband, Ahmed, he said. He had been shot to death at a checkpoint.

Sarah shouted and cried until her screams brought in an American officer, who ordered her to change into her civilian clothes and go home to be with her boys.

Even though she couldn't forget how much the two of them had fought, she was haunted by the fear that her husband had been killed because of her.

The Arrest: September 2008

"Sarah, just tell them the truth."

Those were the last words she heard from Berriman at the end of what was supposed to have been a routine security clearance. With that, she was no longer the woman who helped clean up southeast Baghdad, but an alleged spy for the Mahdi Army, disappearing into the American and Iraqi detention system.

For eight days, an interrogator questioned her about alleged links to the militia and said that she would never see her children again.

She clung to bits of information from her questioner, about how an unidentified Iraqi had signed a statement accusing her of smuggling intelligence to the Mahdi Army; that she deliberately misinterpreted during meetings; that she helped slip militia fighters into U.S.-backed neighborhood watch programs.

She tormented herself, wondering how the soldiers she had worked with for months could believe this.

"How could I help the Mahdi Army, who blew up my house, killed my husband . . . and made my sons fatherless?" she asked. "How could you imagine I would do this?"

She ran through names in her head, trying to seize upon who had spread the rumors and betrayed her.

She watched Oprah with the other women at the detention center and started to daydream. "Oprah, I'm going to write my story to you and see what you are going to do for me," she mused.

On the phone, she asked her son Mustapha, a shy boy with floppy bangs, to get the $20,000 in savings she had hidden in her handbag in her room on the U.S. base, which she thought was the safest place in Baghdad to keep her belongings. When Mustapha retrieved her things, there was no money.

Two months passed before Sarah appeared in an Iraqi court, where the judge asked how she knew the Mahdi Army. She explained that she met militia members with U.S. soldiers, who even posed for pictures with them. The judge quickly dismissed the case against her.

But her Iraqi lawyer wanted more money from her family and balked at filling out the release papers. With her papers unsigned, the Americans sent her to an Iraqi women's jail.

The Rusafa jail was "the lowest depth of hell." Sarah stayed in rooms with almost 100 women, including kidnappers and murderers. There was the Bata gang, named after a Toyota with a big trunk convenient for dumping bodies during the civil war, and the Lima gang, named after a prisoner who had had a baby with a guard at a previous jail.

After a month, a new lawyer completed the paperwork for her release. Sarah couldn't sleep the night before her freedom, staying awake till dawn.

Still angry, she wrote an e-mail to Berriman and asked the captain why he had abandoned her, why he did nothing when her money was stolen. Only months before, he had recommended her for immigration to America; now she had lost her job and her chance to go to the U.S.

"This is for you too to ask yourselves: Did anyone of you get hurt when I was working with you?" she addressed the captain. "I am sure you know the answer."

Her e-mail bounced back.

Berriman said later in an interview that he wished he had done more for her, but his battalion was preoccupied with rotating out of Iraq when Sarah was being investigated.

If he could tell her anything, Berriman said, "I would want her to know she helped us out very much and she is a very good person and I hope she continues to stay safe and finds security for her and her boys."

An Army spokesperson added that an investigation failed to uncover any evidence of theft.

Sarah started her letter to Oprah. When she sat down to type, she sobbed, remembering every moment from the last two years. Finally she sent it. The e-mail failed to go through. She asked Higgins' wife to send it for her. But Oprah never answered.

A New Life: Winter 2009

Sarah decided to finish studying for the foreign language degree she had walked away from years ago and get a job as a civil servant with it. She was attending class alongside 20-year-olds and grappling with grammar. But she was resolute.

"I am tired from crying," she said, a textbook under her arm.

She was determined to show her children she was strong. The night before the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the family was sitting in the darkened living room when her younger son, Baqr, started sobbing because his father used to give him a bit of money on the holiday.

Sarah did all she could: She held him close until his tears had dried.

ned.parker@latimes.com

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