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Operation Iraqi-family freedom: Ex-Marine struggles to bring wife, child to U.S.

TONY AL-SHAMMEREE served the U.S. honorably during the recent war in Iraq, fighting to defeat the dictator of his native land on behalf of his adopted home.

Tony al-Shammeree, a former Marine now living in Plymouth Meeting, fears for his wife and child's safety in Iraq. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
Tony al-Shammeree, a former Marine now living in Plymouth Meeting, fears for his wife and child's safety in Iraq. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)Read more

TONY AL-SHAMMEREE served the U.S. honorably during the recent war in Iraq, fighting to defeat the dictator of his native land on behalf of his adopted home.

So when he first sought to bring his Iraq-born wife and son to the United States last year, he thought it would be easy. Not only is he a retired Marine and an American citizen, but his family members had been threatened with harm if they stayed. He himself had already been forcibly detained for 23 days until his family paid a $500,000 ransom.

Instead, al-Shammeree, 32, has found himself caught in a bureaucratic quagmire. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told him that he didn't have enough documentation proving his residency. His wife and son, still in Baghdad, have been threatened and are in hiding.

Al-Shammeree, living with family in Plymouth Meeting, feels hopeless and despondent. He has not seen his wife and son since he left Iraq in August, and he is deeply worried about them.

"I just want my wife and son here safe," al-Shammeree said. "That's all I want."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said that she could not comment on al-Shammeree's case because of privacy issues. Representatives for U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter had no further information on the case and urged al-Shammeree to contact their constituent-services offices.

Meanwhile, al-Shammeree waits. He talks to his wife every day. He likes for her to text him every few hours so he knows she's OK.

He's puzzled - and disappointed - by his government's actions.

"I'm an American," he said. "It's the American government's responsibility to protect us as Americans. My son is like any other kid."

Joined by his parents and siblings, all members of Iraq's Shiite minority, al-Shammeree fled Iraq after the failed Shiite uprising of 1991. Before settling in the U.S., the family stayed in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp, where Marines stood guard. The servicemen inspired the young al-Shammeree; after moving to the United States and becoming an American citizen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.

"They saved my life and they protected my family," he said. "I wanted to pay them back."

He did just that during the recent war in Iraq, where he served as a lance corporal. "It's Desert Storm all over again for me - but this time I'm on the right side," he wrote in a 2003 letter to his family.

His knowledge of the language and culture facilitated life for his fellow Marines. In a 2003 Daily News article, al-Shammeree's family described his overseas adventures, which included aiding in the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners, including some of dictator Saddam Hussein's top aides.

Al-Shammeree received an honorable discharge from active duty in 2004. He returned to Iraq to work as a contractor, first for a telecom company, then for his father's construction business.

In 2007, he married his wife, a trained psychologist. They later welcomed their son, who is now a year old.

They planned to resettle in the U.S., but there was no rush. Until, that is, al-Shammeree was kidnapped, his family's lives were threatened and their peaceful existence was ruined.

Al-Shammeree's story of being forcibly detained until his family paid off his captors - who may have been affiliated with the Iraqi police - is not an unusual one in Iraq, said Becca Heller, director of the New York-based Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit affiliated with the Urban Justice Center. She hears similar stories often.

"It doesn't surprise me," she said. "There's no functioning government now at this point. The rule of law there is not robust."

Al-Shammeree said that he was taken from his home by men in Iraqi police uniforms in November 2009. He suspects that he'd drawn attention to himself by working for American troops.

When al-Shammeree asked what he was being charged with, he got no response. When he said that he was an American citizen and demanded to know his rights, he was quickly shut down.

"In Iraq," he was told, "you have no rights. We have all the rights."

He was detained for a month. During that time, he said, he was beaten and interrogated about the comings and goings on the U.S. base where he had worked. His captors told him that they were holding him on a stolen-car charge, a ridiculous claim, al-Shammeree said. He never went to court. He never saw a judge or a lawyer.

A representative from the U.S. Embassy visited at the urging of al-Shammeree's wife, but nothing changed. Eventually, al-Shammeree's family and friends paid $500,000 for his release.

"Iraqis helped me, but my government couldn't even help me," he said.

Fearing for his family, al-Shammeree went to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to get his son a passport. He thought that it would be simple.

He was told that he needed five years of proof of U.S. residency. He presented certificates documenting his service in the Marines.

"They didn't even try to look at it," he said. "They said, 'Thank you for your service, but this is not good enough.' "

He brought in tax forms, a copy of his passport. Nothing was enough. He needed, they said, at least four years of income-tax returns.

Meanwhile, his family continued to receive threats, possibly from the same men who had held him for ransom.

Al-Shammeree can't understand why he has been asked for the extra documentation. He pointed to the list of documents required to obtain a passport for his son. Nowhere does it state that tax returns are needed.

"I brought them everything, all the proof, and it's still not enough," he said.

Again, Heller, of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, said that she was not surprised.

"The level of bureaucracy is unfortunate," she said. "I'm not surprised they asked for some crazy documents."

In August, with the threats against him growing more intense, al-Shammeree fled Iraq for the second time in his life. It killed him to leave his wife and son behind, he said, but he thought that he'd have more luck working the system on the U.S. end.

Instead, more than three months later, he's no closer to bringing his family to safety than he was before. He showed his many e-mail exchanges with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, including the continued insistence that he produce more and more documents.

The separation from his family is heartrending, and al-Shammeree is frustrated with his government. Still, he plans to rejoin the military as soon as he can, wishing again to fight for his country.

The separation from his family would be easier if he knew they were safe.

"It's not like I'm away on deployment and doing a job," he said. "I'm away from my son because of the screwup of the U.S. Embassy.

"I risked my life . . . I was doing everything I should do as an American, and I get nothing in return."