Correction to This Article
Previous versions of this article stated incorrectly that 159 service members became U.S. citizens. Immigration officials naturalized 259 troops from 71 countries.

Warriors for U.S. Become Its Citizens, Too

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 12 -- Evan Eskharia fled Iraq in 1990 when he was 9 years old, crossing into Turkey on foot one night with his parents and siblings.

On Saturday morning, Eskharia, now a U.S. Marine, strode into a palace built for the man his family had fled and recited the oath of citizenship.

He was among 259 service members who obtained U.S. citizenship during the largest overseas naturalization ceremony in history.

"When they called my name, I looked down and said: 'It happened! It's done!' " Eskharia said, standing under a grand chandelier that lights up the main hall of the Al Faw Palace, built as a retreat for Saddam Hussein. "It's ironic that I fled this country from a dictator and came back to get my citizenship here."

Al Faw is now part of a massive U.S. military base surrounded by blast walls and concertina wire. The service members sat in olive green folding chairs, their rifles placed neatly underneath on the shiny marble floors, perpendicular to their boots.

"This crowd reminds us that the source of our nation's uniqueness is our ethnic and cultural diversity," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd James Austin III, the keynote speaker. "These warriors have already sworn an oath to protect the United States. They have put themselves in harm's way to do our nation's bidding."

A U.S. soldier sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" a cappella. Then a recorded congratulatory message from President Bush, standard at naturalization ceremonies, played on a white screen. The message was followed by Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American."

Reciting the oath of citizenship, the group, which included service members from 71 countries, vowed to "bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law." Then, as their names were called, each approached the front of a room and collected a certificate of citizenship from John Lafferty, a district director of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Each soldier was also handed a folded American flag.

"It was a great honor for me," Lafferty said.

Lafferty and his deputy, who are based in Rome, spent a week in Baghdad interviewing soldiers and ironing out last-minute paperwork issues.

Since 2004, when Bush signed into law the new regulations that streamlined the citizenship process for service members, more than 5,000 soldiers have become U.S. citizens. Roughly 20,000 active service members are eligible to apply, according to immigration officials.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 140 foreign-born U.S. soldiers have died while on active duty. Some have been naturalized posthumously.

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