Feb. 9, 2006: From Brainerd to a jail in Baghdad

  • Article by: Greg Gordon, Mark Brunswick and Rochelle Olson
  • Star Tribune
  • February 9, 2007 - 12:30 PM

A Jordanian-American who once served in the Minnesota National Guard is being held in Iraq, suspected of leading a terror cell for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of Al-Qaida in Iraq.

The Justice Department says an Iraqi insurgent and four Jordanian fighters who were captured with Shawqi Omar at his Baghdad home in October 2004 have charged that he was leading an effort to conduct surveillance on Baghdad hotel guests and to kidnap foreigners.

Just 11 days before the raid, the department said, Omar, Al-Zarqawi and 11 others were indicted in Jordan on charges of plotting a chemical attack.

The case is the first known instance in which the U.S. government has decided to allow an American to be tried in Iraqi courts.

It also appears to be the first case involving a detainee in Iraq in which the United States is holding terror-related prisoners for indefinite periods with no charges and limited access to counsel.

U.S. lawyers for Omar's wife, South Dakota native Sandra Omar, persuaded a federal judge in Washington last week to issue a temporary restraining order barring the U.S. government from turning Omar over to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina acted after the lawyers argued that Omar, a U.S. citizen, had been "illegally imprisoned" for 15 months without a warrant, an attorney or the filing of formal charges.

Urbina cited concerns that Omar, 45, a Sunni Muslim, faced the risk of torture if turned over to the Iraqis.

The Justice Department responded in court papers Tuesday that the judge was misled, and that Omar is not in U.S. custody. Rather, he is being held by multinational forces aiding the Iraqi government, they said. He will eventually be turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice for a full inquiry and possible trial, Justice Department lawyers said. They called the torture concerns "speculative."

The government has not disclosed how it believes Omar, who worked after college as a refrigerator repairman, got caught up in the terrorism war. Sandra Omar said in a affidavit that she and her husband moved to Amman, Jordan, in 1995 because they wanted their five children (a sixth was born in Amman) "to learn Arabic and about Islamic and Middle Eastern culture." She said they have lived in the Middle East since then.

She said her husband was born in Kuwait and came to the United States on a student visa in 1979, attending colleges in North Carolina, Utah and Kansas before they married in 1983.

Shawqi Omar's parents followed him to the United States after the first Gulf War and since have lived in Raleigh, N.C., she said.

Sandra Omar, whose maiden name is Sulzle, said she met Shawqi in fall 1982 while in nursing school in Pierre, S.D., and they married in Mobridge, S.D., the following March.

In August 1983, they moved to Brainerd, Minn., where they lived until July 1984, she said. During that period, Omar joined the National Guard.

Lt. Shannon Purvis, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota National Guard, said Omar was eligible for the guard as a U.S. resident and served for about 11 months. He was training for the artillery when, in November 1984, he received an "uncharacteristic discharge," typically given to recruits who cannot complete training, Purvis said.

Omar worked in jobs repairing refrigerators from 1984 to 1995, while the couple lived in Utah for five years and then six years in Raleigh. He became a naturalized citizen in 1986, his wife said.

Aziz Huq, an attorney for New York University's Liberty National Security Project who is among several lawyers assisting Omar, argued that the United States has "effective custody" of Omar and that he must be afforded his due-process rights. He said Omar's relatives in the United States are shocked by the allegations against him.

"I think 100 percent he's innocent of these charges," said Shawqi's brother, Essam (Sam) Omar, 41, a Raleigh convenience store manager.

He said Shawqi had gone to the United Arab Emirates in either 2002 or 2003 to focus on the furniture business, then tried to win a contract for construction work in Baghdad.

"He was like a thousand other Americans trying to get lucky with a contract," he said. "He has wild dreams and wants to make money. He's got to make money to support his family."

The writers are at:, and

Raleigh News & Observer correspondent Jim Nesbitt contributed to this report.

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