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Western Pennsylvania native gets Iraqi tribe honors

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

The honor was the last thing Army Lt. Col. Michael Bush expected.

Earlier this month, the sheik of Iraq's Katawi tribe presented Bush, 43, with the "yashmagh," a traditional head covering of Arabic tribesmen, and the black wool "agal," a headband usually only given to tribe members.

Bush received the two in a formal ceremony -- an exceedingly rare honor for any Westerner.

"I am pleased to receive the honor, and I feel obligated to wear the headdress with dignity and to always respect the culture that comes with wearing it," wrote Bush in an e-mail from Iraq. A telephone interview wasn't possible because phone service is spotty.

Bush was born in Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side and grew up in nearby Steubenville, Ohio, and in Virginia.

He lived in Moon from 2003 to 2005, when he was a member of the Army's 2nd Battalion, 312th Regiment, an Oakdale-based training support battalion for troops headed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. He considers Pittsburgh home.

Now stationed on the Iran-Iraq border in Wasit Province, Iraq, Bush enlisted in the Army in 1985 and has spent nearly 22 years in the military. His wife and 10-month-old son live in Mannheim, Germany. A helicopter pilot, he now heads a security transition team that is part of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Those who have worked with Bush say they are not surprised the tribe honored him.

"He is respectful and generous and honors commitments he makes. I imagine that is what the sheik saw in him," said Lewis Irwin, an associate professor of political science Duquesne University and a colonel in the Army Reserve, who was Bush's brigade commander while he was in Pittsburgh.

Ridah Krizi, a professor of Arabic at the University of Maryland who does not know Bush, is also impressed.

"No one from outside a tribe can become a member. It's based on blood relation. This is sort of like being given a key to a city in this country. It sounds like he really earned in their eyes, and it is encouraging," said Krizi, a Tunisian.

The Katawi Tribe is part of the Bani Lam, one of the 150 or so tribes in Iraq and resides near Al Kut, Iraq.

Bush, who has been in Iraq for five months, became friends with the sheik through an Iraqi counterpart and also through his Iraqi translator and cultural advisor.

The lieutenant colonel found that his last name -- he is not related to former Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush -- "definitely breaks the ice when meeting Iraqis for the first time."

"Over the course of several months and through observing and respecting the Iraqi culture, I was recognized and considered to be a friend and brother to the sheik," Bush said.

Bush was presented with the yashmagh and agal at a dinner at the sheik's home.

"I was extremely pleased to be honored by the sheik. The agal is a specific honor as it signifies maturity, wisdom and trustworthiness," Bush said.

Bush's interactions with the tribe are mainly through a commander with the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, who meets with Bush three times a week. The commander's area of operations includes the Zurbatiyah checkpoint on the border with Iran and more than 42 other posts along the border.

Bush is encouraged about Iraq's future.

"The Iraqi people are proud of their rich history and look forward to a bright future. The relatively calm national election is proof that Iraq's security is getting better. What a wonderful future Iraq has as its fledgling democracy matures and gains momentum," Bush said.

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