DEARBORN, Mich.— Haider Al-Jubury fled Iraq more than a decade ago after he was pulled out of high school and forced to train for the Army. Now 29, he has asked the Defense Department for permission to return to his homeland to fight alongside coalition troops trying to oust Saddam Hussein.
"There are American men my age over there fighting. I should be there, I should be the one to liberate my country," Al-Jubury said calmly as he sat with friends at Sinbad's Cafe on a recent night.
As news of the war splashed across television screens throughout the restaurant, Al-Jubury watched intently, noting nearly every development and motioning to the screens for emphasis.
"I want to fight side-by-side with the U.S. Army, shoulder to shoulder," he said. "I think it's my job and my duty."
There are some 300,000 Arab-Americans in southeast Michigan, including 30,000 in this Detroit suburb. According to the 2000 Census, 30 percent of all Dearborn residents claim Arab descent, the highest in the nation.
As Al-Jubury spoke, his friends nodded in encouragement.
"So many Iraqis are wanting to serve, to liberate their country," said 40-year-old Basel Taki, of Canton, Ohio. "These people want to fight. They've paid a lot, suffered a lot."
Maha Hussein, president of Iraqi Forum for Democracy, said hundreds of Michigan Iraqi-Americans have volunteered for military service, though she doesn't know how many have been accepted.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz came to Dearborn last month to listen to Iraqis tell their stories of life under Saddam's regime. He encouraged those at the town hall-style meeting to aid the U.S. government — either in civilian or military roles.
Al-Jubury has applied to serve for the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of mostly Iraqi refugees trained to assist military operations, according to the Defense Department. They also are trained in rehabilitation efforts.
A department spokesman refused to discuss details of the Free Iraqi Forces, but the agency has said it would be allowed to train up to 3,000 people in Hungary.
Al-Jubury said he waits every day for the call to serve: "I dream about it, I talk and think about it every minute."
Al-Jubury, who owns a business in Dearborn, was just 19 when he came to Dearborn in 1992 after an Iraqi uprising violently quashed by the government. He lost a younger brother in the fighting.
"He was the first to die in our hometown" of Samawa, Al-Jubury said. Life in Iraq at the time was like "living in hell."
He said the war is necessary, though it's difficult to watch bombs and missiles fall on the country where his aunts, uncles and an estimated 40 cousins continue to live.
Another cousin who was a refugee in the United States was called to join the U.S. military a little more than a month ago. Al-Jubury said he suspects his cousin already is embroiled in the fighting.
He said he is not concerned about returning to the country where he once was forced to run from "relative to relative, house to house" to elude police seeking him after he fled the Iraqi Army.
"Fear is the last thing in my life," he said.
Al-Jubury said his family and friends — many of whom also would like to lend assistance in Iraq — are supportive of his desire to serve, though they are concerned about the prospect of combat.
"My mom wants me to do it, she knows it needs to be done," he said. "But at the same time she worries about me going, of course. She's a mom."
Al-Jubury hopes for a time when he will travel freely between Iraq and the United States, which he says has become a home to him. He is a member of Iraqi Youth Reunion, an educational group planning to help rebuild a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Asked why he would want to leave the relative comfort of his life in Michigan to face battle in Iraq, Al-Jubury answered: "What more reason than a country?"