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West Virginia Muslims Hope to Honor Iraqi Hero - 2003-04-23

West Virginia was once again put on the map when Private 1st Class Jessica Lynch became a prisoner of war in Iraq and was later whisked to safety in a dramatic rescue. Now, citizens of the soldier's home state want to do something special to thank the man who played a key role in bringing one of their own home. Erika Celeste reports from Malden, West Virginia.

Imagine risking not only your own life, but the lives of your family in order to save a perfect stranger. That's exactly what an Iraqi lawyer, known only as Mohammed, did. In early April he stopped by the hospital in Nasiriyah, in south central Iraq, to visit his wife who was a nurse there. What he saw and did next changed at least four lives forever. An Iraqi guard was hitting American prisoner of war, Private Jessica Lynch, as she lay injured in her hospital bed. Mohammed decided on the spot to walk 10 kilometers down a dangerous road known as "Ambush Alley" to alert the nearest U.S. Marines.

Mohammed Jamel-Dauodi, spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of West Virginia, says courage such as Mohammed's renews his faith that there is always a window for peace in the Mideast.

"Mohammed, when he balanced his options, he could easily have ignored it, or joined the other soldiers slapping her, even killing her. But his vision of peace and the treatment of another human being overcame that," said Imam Jamel-Dauodi.

But Mohammed's story didn't end with a simple tipoff. He went back to the hospital again and again, gathering additional information for the troops planning Private Lynch's rescue. He brought them a hand-drawn map, told them the number of guards and the fact that a helicopter could land on top of the hospital. When suspicious Iraqi soldiers ransacked his home, U.S. troops quickly moved Mohammed and his wife and daughter to safety behind American lines.

The 600 Muslim families of the Islamic Center of West Virginia and another recently formed group called the Friends of Mohammed would like to bring the man they call a hero and his family to West Virginia. They say they'd like to personally thank him and show him the home state of the woman he helped rescue.

Imam Jamel-Dauodi said it's vitally important that Muslims of the state don't stand back and wait for someone else to bring Mohammed to the area. "Because he belongs to the Muslim community, number one. He is from an Arab country, Iraq, and he is from the other side of the conflict. We have been stereotyped that we don't belong," said Imam Jamel-Dauodi. "If you are Muslim [they say], you don't belong to this country. No, we are Muslim and we are American. We have loyalty to this country, we have loyalty to our religion, and we have loyalty to our codes of hospitality and our tradition and culture that we would like to share with Mohammed and his family and relate that to the larger community.

Mohammed, his wife and daughter are now in a secure location, so it's difficult to know when they might be able to travel to America. It is also uncertain whether this would be just a visit for the family or a permanent stay. However, both West Virginia's Muslim community and the Friends of Mohammed say they will accommodate them either way. It will cost about $10,000 to bring the family to West Virginia. The Friends of Mohammed will be collecting the money. But group member James Thibeault says fund-raising is secondary to their true focus.

"We do not want this to be about money. We do not want this to be about covering him up with generosity," said Mr. Thibeault. "I think what we want to show Mohammed and his family and the Muslim community, is loving kindness. That's what it's about, loving kindness, and I think West Virginians are good at that."

While the Friends wait for Mohammed and his family to arrive, they are starting work on another project in his honor. Mr. Thibeault of the Friends group said letters, drawings and other paraphernalia that tell the story of Jessica and Mohammed are being gathered for a permanent display at the West Virginia Cultural Museum.

"The story of Mohammed and Jessica, one is incomplete without the other. To understand Jessica and her rescue, is to understand what Mohammed, his wife and child and what they gave up," he said.

The story of Jessica and Mohammed is full of symbolism, and multiple meanings, according to Imam Jamel-Dauodi. For example, the man who saved the private bears the same name as Islam's great prophet Mohammed. And Jessica Lynch is from Palestine. Even though it may be a town in West Virginia, the name is still important.

"The name Palestine brought some delight to the Muslim community because we share the same sympathy and the same grief for the conflict between Israelis and Palestine. Look at those segments: Mohammed, the one who saved Jessica, from Palestine. Hopefully all those positives will do something for the larger international peace in general," noted the Imam, who added that the entire Muslim Community can't wait to welcome Mohammed and his family to West Virginia. In fact, he already knows what he wants to say when they meet: "Good you did! We are proud of you. May God create many good examples like you, to help spread peace and the right image of Islam on this planet."

West Virginia is not only waiting to welcome Mohammed and his family; residents are watching for Jessica Lynch's return home. She is in a military hospital near Washington, recovering from her ordeal in Iraq.