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Saluting the Stars and Stripes at a US military base in Baghdad, soldiers from 38 countries became American citizens yesterday after months of serving their adopted country in uniform.
President Bush passed on his congratulations in a televised message, while John McCain, the presidential candidate, travelled to Iraq to give his regards in person to the 161 troops, a record number to swear their allegiance at the same time in Iraq.
“I can think of no place I would rather be on the day our country celebrates our independence as here,” said Mr McCain, a Republican senator, during a ceremony at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.
General David Petraeus, the US commander of coalition forces in Iraq, praised the servicemen and women, who already serve in the US military despite coming from countries such as Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and even China.
“Let me be the first to wish you well-deserved congratulations,” he said. In addition to the citizenship awards, 588 US soldiers reenlisted in the military — each receiving a tax-free bonus. A patriotic song, Proud to be an American, was played over loud-speakers as the troops sat to attention, surrounded by hundreds of fellow US forces. They then stood as the recorded sound of cannon fire was played and a speaker outlined America’s passage to independence.
Sergeant Christian Rincon, one of 28 Mexicans receiving US citizenship at the ceremony, said that he had always dreamt of being an American. “It feels great, a real accomplishment,” said the 26-year-old, who has lived in California as a permanent resident since he was 6 years old. He joined the Army six years ago. “I wanted to give something back to the country that has given me a home.”
Specialist Venerando Toledo, 34, from the Philippines, was also elated. “It feels good,” he said. “America now [is my country].” One of three Filipinos to be sworn in, Specialist Toledo, who lives in Miami with his wife, has been in the Army for almost three years, and has served 11 months in Iraq. “I wanted to serve my country,” he said.
Thousands more immigrants were due to be sworn in as citizens during July 4 ceremonies in the US. There has been a surge in applications as the naturalisation process has been streamlined and applicants attempted to beat proposed fee increases.
In Baghdad, the violence on the streets could easily be forgotten in the green zone, where more festivities were under way to mark Independence Day.
A large room at the US Embassy was decked out in red, white and blue balloons, banners, ribbons and flags for a big reception. There were also generous helpings of food.
Hundreds of guests attended, including Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Jalal Talabani, the President, and Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador to Iraq. Mr Maliki told the party: “I would like to say on this occasion that we will continue to work together hand in hand and in cooperation for the achievement of our goals in Iraq.”
(Posted on July 5, 2007)