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Middle East

Afghani Marine uses life lessons to protect troops

| Saturday, March 29, 2003

CENTRAL IRAQ -- He is a study in quiet, a taciturn man quietly eyeing a very quiet road at the edge of a very quiet desert.

Rarely moved to say anything loudly, Sgt. A.J. Salim, 25, of Milpitas, Calif., taps nervously on his rifle.

"Lock on those headlights," he whispers to the Marine at the .50-caliber machine gun above him.

"I see him," says the younger Marine.

"I said 'Lock on.' Do you have him?"

"He's far away."

"Lock on, damn it!" the sergeant growls.

This is another minute in an increasingly stressful evening at Machine Gun Post 3 of the U.S. Marine Corps' Combat Engineer firebase north of the Euphrates swamplands.

Nearby, Tango Battery of the supporting artillery was almost overrun by "Saddam's Fedayeen" guerillas, and the Black Hawk choppers ferrying the dead and wounded have been zooming overhead all day.

The latest ploy: Fedayeen trucks, filled with soldiers dressed as farmers, fire on Coalition forces before speeding away. Salim halted at gunpoint a group of Republican Guard spies four days ago. Tonight, the normally quiet man is yelling for a much younger Marine to aim his weapon and, if need be, kill everyone inside the truck.

Many Marines thought Operation Iraqi Freedom would be over within a week. But Salim knew it would devolve into battles with terrorists and guerillas.

His primer: He was born in Afghanistan, weaned on years of civil war, and then returned to fight there last year with American commandos.

"This is exactly like Afghanistan," he said, his eyes -- part Persian, part Tajik, part Turk -- flickering across his gun sights. "I thought, 'This is not going to be like the first Gulf War.' They're not going to surrender to us in large numbers because this time we are invading their country.

"We'd be lucky if they did. So many people think war is a glorified thing, but it's not. We can, however, make the fighting glorious if we fight honorably. For us, as Marines, war is a way of life. We want to save Iraq, and if we do it honorably, the history books will say we did a good deed here."

Salim, a devout Shiite Muslim, is first squad leader in the sandbag-lined attack truck nicknamed "Apocalypse" by his fellow engineers. In the first hours of the war, Salim's convoy made quick work of Iraq's southern stretches in Shiite Muslim territory, with villagers lining the road to cheer north the American Marines.

But in Central Iraq, the Combat Engineer Battalion now finds itself guarding a vital stretch of road up the gut of the nation. Marines have detained nearly a dozen suspicious farmers in the region over the last few days, and the fedayeen, they fear, are growing deadlier every day.

Salim has seen this all before. His father and mother were educated Afghanis, displaced from Kabul by the civil war there in 1994. His family fought against the Russians, and later the Taliban. He enlisted in the Corps only two years after arriving in the United States. He narrowly escaped the Afghani draft -- sure suicide in the early 1990s for those unlucky enough to be earmarked for the ragtag militia.

"I was too young to fight, but that never stopped them. The drafters kept checking my ID and school papers. I was bigger than a lot of the other Afghans, so they thought I was at least 18 years old. This is when I was 11, 12. If I didn't get good grades, I would've been drafted, and I would've died."

Salim is as humble as he is quiet. He's probably the smartest man in "Apocalypse." He left college with only two years left to join the Corps, and when he gets out this year, he hopes to become a teacher or historian. His grandfather is a respected Farsi poet, and, if tugged reluctantly into a conversation, Salim will wax eloquently about the virtues of the Koran, the charms of Iranian poetry, the world's best cinema and the mysteries of Buddhist sculpture.

"There is an old Persian saying that's hard to translate but essentially means, 'A man should not talk so much. He should let everyone assume in his silence that he knows much but says little. Let other men talk so that you can quickly learn what they know, and see them as fools.'"

This is Salim's second war for America, but he won't become a U.S. citizen until next year. He leads four young, white Christian men on the "Apocalypse," but he is a devout Muslim, proud of his schooling in the Koran. When he talks about serious matters on the truck, it's usually with a Jew, who tries to eat the same vegetarian MREs. No pork.

"I hear Arabs saying that this is a war against Muslims, but it bothers me that they are so dumb," Salim says. "They should know better. This war will be hard. I want to come back to America alive. I want to settle down. Wife, kids, the picket fence, all of that. But I also want to liberate this country.

"This is something we must do, like Afghanistan."

Slowly, another bank of headlights curves across the dusty road.

"See him?" Salim says to the machine gunner. "Lock on."

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