By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 4, 2003; Page A01
MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq, April 3 -- Mohammed, a gregarious 32-year-old Iraqi lawyer, went by the hospital in Nasiriyah one day last week to visit his wife, who worked there as a nurse, when he noticed the ominous presence of security agents.
Curious, he asked around, and a doctor friend told him an American soldier was being held there. Something made him want to go see. The doctor took him to a first-floor emergency wing where he pointed out the soldier through a glass interior window -- a young woman lying in a bed, bandaged and covered in a white blanket.
Inside the room with her was an imposing Iraqi man, clad all in black. Mohammed watched as the man slapped the American woman with his open palm, then again with the back of his hand. In that instant, Mohammed recalled today, he resolved to do something. The next day, when the man in black was not around, Mohammed sneaked in to see the young woman.
"Don't worry, don't worry," he told her. He was going to help.
As he recounted the events today, that decision set in motion one of the most dramatic moments in the first two weeks of the war in Iraq. Five days after Mohammed located U.S. Marines and told them what he knew, Black Hawk helicopters swooped in under cover of darkness, touching down next to the six-story hospital, and a team of heavily-armed commandos stormed the building. With hand-scrawled maps from Mohammed and his wife, the commandos quickly found the injured Pfc. Jessica Lynch and spirited her away to safety.
Mohammed said he decided to save the 19-year-old soldier because he could not bear to see her beaten in the hospital. "My heart is cut," he recalled of his reaction when he saw her. "I decided to go to the Americans and tell them about this story."
Mohammed and his family were flown to this crude desert camp by helicopter today to stay the night before being taken to a refugee center in the southern port city of Umm Qasr. They were allowed to clean up in a makeshift "shower" fashioned out of a giant cardboard box and then given clothes to wear -- an MTV shirt for Mohammed's wife, Iman, and an oversized military T-shirt for his 6-year-old daughter. When Mohammed mentioned that he would love an American flag, the Marines rushed to find one.
"He's sort of an inspiration to all of us," said Lt. Col. Rick Long, who hosted the family in his trailer for a dinner of Meals Ready to Eat tonight.
If not for his help, the Marines said, they might never have been able to rescue Lynch. "The information was dead-on," said Col. Bill Durrett, who was helping process their refugee status to keep them safe from reprisals.
Lynch was part of a convoy from the Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company that made a wrong turn at the city of Nasiriyah on the banks of the Euphrates River on March 23 when it was ambushed by Iraqi paramilitary fighters. The U.S. invasion force was being attacked by Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia formed by President Saddam Hussein's son Uday.
Several of the soldiers were killed in the attack, and Lynch returned fire, according to the account given by U.S. officials. Lynch's family said today that she was not shot or stabbed, as early intelligence reports had indicated. Five soldiers were captured in the attack, while seven are still listed as missing in action.
In a German hospital, Lynch underwent back surgery today to repair a fracture that was pinching a nerve. She is suffering two broken legs and a broken arm. She spoke by telephone with her parents in Palestine, W. Va.
Mohammed, whose last name is being withheld at the request of the Marines, set off the chain of events that led to Lynch's rescue. Mohammed was born in Najaf, a holy city to Shiite Muslims like him. He displays an easy smile and is quick to say "welcome." He studied law and a little English in Basra in southeastern Iraq and became an attorney. He and his wife did what they could to make a decent life for themselves and their daughter; they had a house and a Russian-made car. But, as Mohammed told it, they longed for the day Hussein would fall.
So when he saw some Fedayeen in the hospital, he concluded they were up to no good. He said he knew some of them personally. Asked about them, he simply shook his head. "Very bad," he said, switching back and forth from English to Arabic. "Very, very, very, very bad. There's no kindness in my heart for them." Mohammed recalled that, after the war began, he watched them drag a dead woman's body through the street, apparently killed because she waved at a U.S. helicopter.
The same day he saw Lynch through the glass window, he said in an account vouched for by the Marines, Mohammed set out by foot to find the Americans. The Marines had been trying to secure a route on the eastern side of Nasiriyah to keep critical supply convoys flowing over a pair of bridges that took them across the Euphrates. Mohammed said he walked six miles out of the town center before he came across some Marines.
He said he approached them with his hands raised.
"What do you want?" a Marine asked.
"I have important information about woman soldier in hospital," he replied.
Mohammed was taking a chance, not only in defying Iraqi authorities but in approaching the Marines. Saddam's Fedayeen and their allies had been dressing in civilian clothes to get close to U.S. troops, sometimes even faking surrender, only to open fire at short range. U.S. troops have also fired on civilians at checkpoints.
But with the mention of a woman soldier, Mohammed got the Marines' attention, and he was quickly ushered in to talk with officers who began grilling him about the hospital and the soldier inside. At the same time, Mohammed instructed his wife to go stay with their family -- and none too soon. That night, friends told him later, the Fedayeen showed up at his house and ransacked the place, searching for something.
It was not enough to simply tell the Americans that one of their own was at Saddam Hospital. Twice over the next two days, he said, they sent him back to the hospital to gather more information. Just to get to the hospital was perilous, he said, because of the U.S. bombs that seemed to be falling all around Nasiriyah. Once in the hospital, he had to make sure he was not spotted by anyone who would inform on him to the Fedayeen.
As he skulked around, he counted the number of Fedayeen at the hospital, until he came to 41. He noted that four guards in civilian clothes stood watch at Lynch's first-floor room armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and radios. He traced routes through the building that commandos could use. He tried to learn what he could about the operations center they set up at the hospital on the first day of the war.
During his first return trip to the hospital, he learned the Iraqis were talking about amputating her leg, which had been injured during or after the attack. Mohammed said he urged his doctor friend to stop the amputation. He slipped in to see Lynch and reassured her, he said, though she mistook him for a doctor.
"A person is a human being regardless of nationality," he explained today. "Believe me, I love Americans."
After returning to the Marine base, he drew out five maps by hand, and his wife, who was brought there, drew one, too. The military planners took the scraps of paper and got to work.
In the end, a Special Operations force of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Air Force personnel swooped in early Wednesday morning, while Marines staged a fake offensive elsewhere around Nasiriyah to distract attention of the Fedayeen and their allies. It was one of the few times an American prisoner of war has been successfully rescued in the last half century.
Mohammed has given up the life he knew to help a woman he met only briefly. He and his family came to this Marine base with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and a blanket. But Mohammed smiled broadly and happily talked about his role. He expressed no doubts about his decision.
"She would not have lived," he said simply. "It was very important."
He knew the risks, he said. "I am afraid not for me. I am afraid about my daughter and my wife," he said, turning to them sitting quietly next to him. "Because I love much."
Mohammed wants to work with the Americans some more, maybe help them gather information elsewhere in Iraq. His wife could help treat injured soldiers, he offered. Maybe he will go to America. But eventually, he said, he wants to return home.
"In the future when Saddam Hussein is down," he said, "I will go back to Nasiriyah." He said he would not worry then about the Fedayeen. "When Saddam Hussein goes down, I'm sure they will go away."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company