War on Iraq

Why a Defense Contractor's Seemingly Mundane Decision Has Iraqi Interpreters Fearing for Their Lives

U.S. contractors want to hand over their Iraqi translators' personal data to Iraqi officials. The results could be deadly.

Local interpreters at U.S. bases throughout Iraq are threatening to resign if their American contractor, Global Linguistic Solutions insists on turning over their personal information to Iraqi authorities.

On Dec. 23, GLS informed local interpreters that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), due to go into effect on Jan. 1, required them to withhold 20 percent of the pay of local interpreters for taxes and social security. They also insisted that the interpreters provide detailed personal information on themselves and their family members that would be turned over to the Ministry of Finance.

What may sound sensible on the face of it -- an emerging nation seeking to institute an income-tax system -- is not so simple. The Ministry of Finance is currently headed by Bayan Jabr, the former Minister of the Interior, whom many allege sanctioned the death squads that targeted Sunnis.

In 2005, American Gen. Karl Horst discovered a hidden bunker with 160 prisoners, most of them Sunni, who had been tortured and held captive by Jabr's forces. Most interpreters working for U.S. forces are Sunni and are understandably reluctant to turn over personal information to a man they believe seeks their elimination.

Amelia Templeton of Human Rights First takes the interpreters' fears of retaliation seriously. Speaking of links between politicians and militia groups, she says, "One of the most troubling things about Iraq is the degree of impunity it has granted for crimes committed between 2005 and early 2007. Justice and accountability have fallen by the wayside."

Interpreters' Stories*: Ahmed

Ahmed, an interpreter for the past four years, grew up in Iraq speaking Arabic and English. He had several American friends and was studying computer science at university when American forces invaded Iraq. In 2004, he left school and signed on to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

In late 2005, death squads patrolled the streets of Baghdad, rounding up Sunni men for torture and execution. Jabr, then the Minister of the Interior, who presided over the Iraqi police and was alleged to have close ties to the notorious Badr Brigade, did nothing to prevent this carnage.

In those days of extreme sectarian violence in Baghdad, a friend of Ahmed's, someone who worked for the Ministry of the Interior, tipped him off that he was on a list of suspected Sunni collaborators who were targeted for execution. Heeding his friend's warning to get out of the country, Ahmed went to Jordan with his family for four months. When they received word that security in Baghdad had improved, his family returned home, and Ahmed resumed his work for the Army.

"I love the Army; they treated me like a brother," he says. Ahmed served a number of units, including Army Special Forces, saw his share of the horrors of war, and credits the U.S. Army with helping him grow from a boy into a man.

In November 2006, six government vehicles pulled up in front of Ahmed's home, handcuffed him and forced him into the trunk of one of their cars and sped away. Fortunately, Ahmed had stashed his interpreter's ID before they took him. It is one thing to sell items to the coalition forces; it is quite another to serve as their translator. Many translators believe there are bounties on their heads and that current members of the Iraqi government are complicit.

Ahmed's kidnapping did not result in his death; his kidnappers extracted a hefty sum for his release from his wealthy family. Every monthly check of $1,200 he receives goes to paying back that debt.

Taha

In 1998, during the reign of Saddam Hussein, Taha, an outspoken 20-year old Sunni, expressed to what he thought was a group of friends his frustration over Iraq's leadership. "I hate Saddam Hussein and the whole lot of them," he complained. It wasn't long before Iraqi authorities apprehended and detained Taha for 58 days, during which his captors tortured him by burning his back with battery acid.

When the United States invaded in 2003, Taha signed on to translate for the U.S. Army. Like George W. Bush and his neocon advisors, Taha thought that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would free Iraq of a powerful tyrant and usher in a new democracy in his country.

But in the chaos that followed, Taha and his family became the targets of groups hostile to the U.S. occupation. There were continual calls to his home threatening his family. In January 2007, while he was away working for U.S. forces, his family received a letter threatening that if they did not vacate their home, it would be burned with them in it.

Taha moved his family, but the threats continued. In March 2007, his sister, who had never worked for the coalition forces and who knew little of Taha's work, was taken into custody by Iraqi authorities and interrogated about her brother's activities. When his U.S. Army company commander intervened, she was released.

Abdul

Abdul has worked as an interpreter for the coalition forces for five years and has been receiving death threats since 2004. Once, while home visiting his family in Baghdad, he was driving along the highway and someone in the car next to him shot at him. Luckily they missed, but they made their message clear in a phone call to his home. "All the warnings we gave you not to work for the Americans you have ignored," the caller said. "Now you know we are serious."

His sister has been threatened, and in October 2007, a car driven by a uniformed officer tried to run his father off the road. The pursuing car turned and sped away after he reached a checkpoint, but a typed letter appeared on Abdul's doorstep the next day. It read, "Your father was lucky this time."

Although proud of his work for American forces, Abdul acknowledges its cost.

"I have had no social life since 2004. I only go home when it's dark. I quickly run from the car to my house. I can never go out of my house during the day. If I go to visit a friend, I must do it in the dark."

A Dangerous Job With Few Rewards

One hears stories like these from local interpreters on U.S. bases throughout Iraq. Since the war began in 2003, 300 interpreters have died. Many tell of the evasive tactics they use when leaving the base to visit their families: traveling at night, jumping from taxi to taxi and avoiding public places, such as markets.

They know fellow interpreters who were killed and their bodies displayed on the Internet. One female interpreter was beheaded, her head placed on one side of the street and the rest of her body on the other -- with IEDs hidden under both.

In the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when bombs and heavy artillery rained down on Iraq, "shock and awe" didn't need much translation. But in the shift to counterinsurgency and the coordination of security with the newly formed Iraqi army and Iraqi police, interpreters became vital. Without them, the progress of the last year in Iraq would have been impossible.

Army Lt. Col. Christopher Vanek of the 10th Mountain Division, a commander for whom Taha worked, led the effort to turn the hostile Arab Hawijah district west of Kirkuk into a relatively secure area in which military commanders now meet local leaders at council meetings.

Vanek gives much of the credit to Taha, who formed a soccer team with soldiers from the base and organized a league with teams from neighboring towns.

"Taha enabled us to earn the respect of thousands of Iraqis through competition on the playing field," he said. "Our soccer program was one of the greatest successes, in my opinion, and I attribute 90 percent of that to Taha."

Agents of Stability

Now that coalition forces are no longer acting unilaterally and American officers plan missions with their Iraqi counterparts, small-scale diplomacy and communication is crucial. "It's time," says tank commander Capt. Matthew Keith, stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry, "to get out of our tanks and talk."

Since most American officers don't speak fluent Arabic or Kurdish, every encounter requires an interpreter. Although the local Iraqi interpreters (between 7,000 and 9,000 of them now in Iraq) have not been granted security clearances, they are so proficient, so vital and so trusted that they routinely translate the details of missions.

Throughout the war, interpreters have been agents of stability as commands have switched over. Capt. Zebulon Pike, now on his second deployment and stationed at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk, says that "interpreters provide a critical piece of continuity. As units come and go, interpreters stay." Pike recalls his work with one interpreter.

"A particularly nasty strike hit the vehicle that Jamal rode in. The explosion hit the captain in the vehicle, and he lost his eye, and it killed the driver. Jamal single-handedly dragged out the two bodies, and started using an M4 as he suffered from his own gaping neck wound."

Such valor goes underappreciated, according to Pike. "Jamal never received even a certificate of appreciation," he laments. "Had he been a U.S. soldier, he would have received a bronze star." Pike feels so strongly that interpreters deserve U.S. protection that he has offered to serve as a sponsor in order that two interpreters might obtain asylum.

Many interpreters have completed all the paperwork for asylum but are awaiting their interview, a wait that can take many months. Although Congress has established a Special Immigrant Visa Program for those Iraqis who have worked for the United States, the caps placed on this program fall far short of the demand, and the office in Baghdad that processes requests is understaffed.

In the first three years of the program, nearly 1,900 Iraqis -- including workers' family members -- gained asylum, according to Human Rights First, an advocacy organization that helps Iraqi asylum seekers. An estimated 76,000 Iraqis (not including family members) have worked for the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Justice Department and U.S. government contractors during this war.

'The Safety and Security of Our Employees Is a Top Priority'

In December 2007, Global Linguistic Solutions, in partnership with Dyncorp, was awarded a five-year, $4.65 billion contract to provide interpreters for the war in Iraq. Soon thereafter, Dyncorp's stock saw a dramatic rise in value. Although GLS will not disclose how many interpreters it currently employs, the company will say that it is contracted for 10,400. Nearly 80 percent of these are local Iraqi interpreters who are paid less than 10 percent of the salary (roughly $1,200 per month) of interpreters who come from the United States.

Although they are unhappy to see their pay decrease by 20 percent as the SOFA dictates, the interpreters will continue to work for less. But if they have to disclose personal information about themselves and their family members, many say they will resign.

Since they have communicated their concerns to GLS in recent weeks, the contractor has agreed to postpone the requirement at least for a month while it considers its legal options.

GLS spokesman Terry Sharp said, "The safety and security of our employees is a top priority." When asked if GLS would risk that safety and security by handing over personal information, Sharp said, "I can't predict risk."

*All interpreters' names have been changed.

Carol Burke teaches journalism at the University of California Irvine. Her latest book, Camp All American Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight (Beacon Press), looks at changing military culture.
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