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Gary Younge

Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun. Photograph: AP
The soldier's story

The following Sunday, June 27, the 24-year-old turned up on the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera blindfolded with a sword at his head. His captors said they would behead him unless all Iraqi prisoners were released from US controlled prisons. On July 29 the military reclassified him as "captured".

On July 3 his gruesome murder was posted on the internet. "As your soldier had a love affair with a young Arab woman, he has been lured from the base" and "slaughtered", announced a radical Islamist group. The next day another group posted another message saying he was alive. On July 5 they said he was "in a safe place".

On July 6 the family in Lebanon said they had received "a sign ... that nobody else could possibly know" that proved he was still alive. On July 8 he turned up at the American embassy in the Lebanese capital of Beirut with his family.

What prompted each of those events, and what happened in between them, however, is unclear. Hassoun's return to American custody, (he is now in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, being debriefed) marked both the end of a long personal ordeal, and just one more stage in a national mystery. For if the facts that we do know about the Hassoun case are peculiar, the facts we do not allude to something possibly even stranger. The manner of his disappearance, the terms of his reappearance, the video of his capture, the means by which he made it to Lebanon and his family's role in negotiating his release - all are at best mysterious, and at worst dubious.

The army's original conclusion was that he was a deserter - and while the official version has changed to say that he was kidnapped, there are few officials who believe it. "The whole thing has been one of the strangest things I've seen while in the marine corps," Lieutenant Colonel, T V Johnson, who is in Falluja, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's going to take a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of what happened."

The most that the military will admit is that it doesn't know what happened to Hassoun, but that it hopes to find out. Participating in inquiries is the naval criminal investigative service, the law-enforcement arm of the navy and marines, which investigates felony cases. "If there are extenuating circumstances connected to something that looks like a larger crime, and in this case it was suspected foul play ... that's when we get involved." The fact that it remains involved does not look good for Hassoun.

As for the marine himself, in the only statement he has made since his release, he said: "I did not desert my post. I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days ... Once a marine always a marine."

So what really happened? The last people to see Hassoun, his fellow marines at the base, say he was distressed by the death of a fellow soldier in the 1st marine expeditionary force. The next day he failed to report for duty. At this early stage in the story the first question marks over Hassoun's abduction arise.

First comes the matter of how insurgents could have taken him from such a tightly guarded compound without waking anyone up or otherwise causing a commotion. According to some sources his locker had also been cleared and when he left, some of his clothes were missing. It was on this basis that the US military concluded that he had deserted, possibly heading for his extended family in Lebanon.

"He wanted to go home and quit the game, but since he was relatively early in his deployment, that was not going to happen any time soon," one officer told the New York Times, on condition of anonymity. "So he talked to some folks on base he befriended because they were all fellow Muslims, and they helped sneak him off. Once off, instead of helping him get home, they turned him over to the bad guys."

The army reported 2,781 deserters in 2003 and 1,470 in the first five months of this year, according to Lieutenant Colonel John Jessup, who collects army desertion data for the Pentagon. This makes up less than 1% of the enlisted soldiers; far lower than the average of 5% during the Vietnam war years, a fact explained largely by the absence of a draft for this war.

Accusations that Hassoun was one of them and had been lured away and then trapped has hit the rest of his family, who live in the Mormon-dominated state of Utah, very hard. "To question his loyalty and nationalism is wrong," says his older brother, Mohamad Hassoun. "Of course we are offended."

Some believe that the allegations smack of anti-Muslim prejudice. "Muslims have to prove their loyalty again and again," says Iqbal Hossain, president of the Khadeeja Islamic centre in West Valley city, Utah. They "might not have been made had he not been a Muslim . . . It's a question of family honour. Just because he's a Muslim doesn't mean he would desert his country." Indeed, although religious, even Hassoun's family in Tripoli seem exceptionally pro-American. His brother, who speaks English with an American accent, says that his family have been in the US and loyal to it for generations.

Wassef Ali Hassoun was born in Lebanon in 1980 and educated at American schools there. He moved to the US in 2000 and lived with his brothers near Salt Lake City for two years, where he studied part time at college and worked in sales, before joining the marines in 2West Jordan001. Few even among the Muslim community in West Jordan, the suburb of Salt Lake City where his family settled, appear to have known him well. Neighbours say the family kept themselves to themselves.

He married and divorced an American some time ago and, earlier this year, married his first cousin in absentia. His father represented him in the ceremony in Tripoli, as is sometimes the case when the groom is out of the country. His bride could not be reached for comment.

Fluent in Arabic, French and English, Hassoun worked as an interpreter in the military, as well as driving trucks and Humvees. When his capture thrust his military service to the fore the entire community of West Jordan rallied around his family. Boy scouts covered the front garden in flags, while Mormon women came and asked if they could pray with them.

"We wanted to honour them during their special time in their sacred, um, what do you call this building?" Irene Smith asked the New York Times, referring to the local mosque. "We feel like we are all a little part of a larger community."

The same kind of community spirit has not been visited on his family in Lebanon, where animosity to the US military's role in Iraq made them local pariahs.

Fortunately for the Lebanese Hassouns, they appear to be able to look after themselves. Numbering around 4,000, in Tripoli they refer to themselves not so much as a family as a clan. They live on Hassoun Street, a long road in the Abu Samra neighbourhood just outside Tripoli which is inhabited entirely by members of the marine's family. Finding it is easy, as intrigued Tripolitans direct reporters to "the American's house". Children playing in the street are all cousins, while in a nearby shop, Hassoun's uncle, Hussein, is paying a visit to a relative.

"He is a very, very good boy. Very calm and God-fearing - like all the Hassoun boys," says the seventysomething man. "He is very well mannered. He would never cross his parents and never hang out outside like those children."

After the marine's release a relative reportedly shot and killed a man in Tripoli who had accused the family of being "US traitors". The shooting spree shook the area. Two people died, and two others were injured; several shops belonging to the Hassouns were also smashed up.

After the video of their relative in the marines appeared on al-Jazeera, the Hassouns reportedly set about using their considerable connections to secure his release. But at a time when the kidnappings and beheadings of American non-military appeared to be escalating, there seemed little hope. "We would like to inform you that the marine of Lebanese origin, Hassoun, has been slaughtered," read the message from the radical islamist group, al-Sunna army. "You are going to see the video with your very own eyes soon."

Quite what made the hardliners of al-Sunna change their mind, disowning the message and vouching for Hassoun's safety, is also unclear. "We received a signal that he was released long before it became official, but I will say no more," says Hassoun's brother Sami.

Some reports attributed the mediation to the Mufti of the city of Aleppo in Syria, Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, who allegedly interceded with the Association of Muslim Scholars, an Iraqi group, which has had a hand in the release of several hostages. But the Mufti later denied involvement, saying: "We do not believe in the language of kidnapping." He also denied any family ties with the Hassouns of Lebanon. All sides - both in Syria and Lebanon - seem to want to distance themselves from Hassoun's release.

Which leads us to the final mystery: how Hassoun made it 500 miles from Falluja in Iraq to his family in Lebanon. "As far as we know, he never entered Lebanon. There is no way for him to enter Lebanon without our knowledge," says a senior customs official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

His family brought him from Tripoli to Beirut, according to US embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Wharton. On July 8 he called the embassy and asked for them to meet him at three o'clock in a cafe in Beirut. Hassoun didn't show up. Then he called again and changed the time to six. This time he was there and was escorted back by an attache.

Asked whether Hassoun is a deserter, one White House official involved in counter terrorism says: "Not interested in serving is a better way to put it." The most likely scenario, say most insiders, is that he may have panicked and asked local Iraqis to help him escape. They either traduced him or staged the capture and then facilitated his return to his family. But like just about everything else in the story, the only person who knows is Hassoun - and he's not saying.

After reporting to the embassy, Hassoun was taken from Beirut to an army base in Landstuhl, Germany. From there he went to a marine base at Quantico, Virginia and then finally to Camp Lejeune, where, between debriefings and visits from a Muslim chaplain, he spends most of his time watching TV and relaxing with his eldest brother Mohamad.

Base personnel say Hassoun can take "as long as he needs" for the repatriation process before the tough questions begin. According to Sally Harvey, a clinical psychologist at Landstuhl: "We want to give him a chance to tell his story."

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