Fadi Fadhil -- Freddie to his friends -- is probably marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war's launch with closer attention than the average Minnesotan.

Fadhil, an Iraqi citizen living in Minneapolis, served as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Baghdad, his hometown. From April 2003 to February 2005, he guided American soldiers through some of their most challenging days.

Lt. Col. Michael Baumann, commander of a battalion task force with the 5th Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division, with whom Fadhil worked, calls him a vital "cultural bridge." Baumann, of Lakeville, moved heaven and earth to bring Fadhil to Minneapolis in 2005, after his life was threatened.

On Tuesday, Fadhil will join forces again with Baumann, who is the Minnesota chair of Vets for Freedom, an organization of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who support "completing the mission" there. (www.vetsforfreedom.org) The organization's "National Heroes Tour" will roll in that day to thank and honor Minnesota soldiers, meet with news media and students, and hold a public reception at the Fort Snelling Officers Club.

Fadhil will be telling Minnesotans he meets at tour events that Baghdad is now a far safer and better-functioning city than it was when he left in 2005. "Baghdad has taken huge steps toward where Iraqis want it to be," he says.

What's more, Fadhil will emphasize that Iraq is becoming a far better place than it was before the U.S. invasion.

Such changes were unimaginable in his youth. "Nothing you've seen in the media -- TV-wise, radio-wise -- comes close to describing what life under Saddam was like," he says. "It blows people's minds out when I tell them."

The way he became an interpreter illustrates this. In February 2003, a few weeks before the American invasion, he was thrown in prison for refusing to join Saddam's Baath Party.

The only surprise then, he says, was how long his arrest was in coming. "Under Saddam, you'd do what the government wanted you to do, dream what they wanted you to dream, become what they wanted you to become. When I was 5, my parents sat me down and taught me that 'what you hear in this house -- our opinions, our beliefs -- stays in this house. One chance slip and Mommy and Daddy could be gone forever.'"

Prison doors thrown open

Of his time in prison, Fadhil will only say, "It was far beyond anything human." But as American troops converged on Baghdad, the prison doors were thrown open, and the guards ran away.

Shortly after his release, Fadhil was walking on a busy street when he saw a U.S. Army officer and a Muslim cleric waving their arms and raising their voices. The situation was about to get out of hand, he says, when he stepped up and said, "I'm a local, I speak English. Can I help?"

Soon, he was working with the American military, and eventually he linked up with Baumann's unit, which was building sewers, roads and schools. "Freddie was indispensable," Baumann says.

"Our military's great at offensive operations. But it took us time to develop a civil affairs arm. Freddie and other Iraqis like him provided us with the cultural insights we needed to rebuild the nation from the bottom up. But the Army didn't get it -- didn't do it in an institutionalized way."

Now Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, has transformed "the way we think and operate on the ground," Baumann says. "At the local level, people are learning the tradition of democracy in their daily lives. We can't give up now."

Satellite receiver meant death

In the past, Fadhil points out, the penalty for listening to non-government media -- having a satellite receiver -- could be death. "The government rewarded people who ratted on their neighbors -- a car, made in Canada, was the normal gift," he says. For the exposed family, "Your house would get raided, and your father would die as an example to everyone else."

'They are free'

Today, Fadhil marvels at the changes in Iraqis' attitudes. "They complain about the government -- or this or that -- with an American soldier or Iraqi official standing next to them. It means they are free. Satellite dishes are everywhere. People have gone nuts trying to satisfy their hunger for information."

"People are waking up, learning to think for themselves," he adds. "It's like an abused child. When the abuse stops, you need mentoring, coaching. You don't let go of the child's hand until the child is learning to stand."

Fadhil and Baumann agree the stakes in Iraq are high. "This is a critical part of the world," Fadhil says. "People in the Middle East -- in countries like Egypt -- are getting the guts to stand up against oppression. Iraqis have seen and disowned the foreign fighters waving the flag of radical Islam. The regimes in Syria and Iran are fighting against the changes in Iraq because they see the mass awakening there, and they're afraid."

"People tell me the fight's not worth it," Baumann concludes. He points to Fadhil: "Just look in his eyes -- and then tell me it's not worth it."

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.