Iraqi Translators At Risk Under New Iraqi Government

Spencer Ackerman has an important piece at The Washington Independent about Iraqi translators’ fears for their physical safety now that Iraq is taking over political control from the United States. The heart of the problem lies in the fact that insurgents, death squads, and other terrorist groups will now have access to identifying information via the translators’ tax documents, which up until now were submitted to U.S. military officials by the company the U.S. military had hired to provide translators. Now that the U.S. is leaving, that information will have to be given to the new Iraqi government, which is notoriously corrupt:

Several weeks ago, Global Linguist Solutions (GLS), the company that holds the contract with the U.S. military to provide translators, entered into negotiations with the Iraqi government about what their new obligations are for withholding employee taxes once the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — which, among other things, gives the Iraqi government increased authority over U.S. contractors — goes into effect. The company said emphatically that it has no intention of turning over identifying information for its roughly 7,000 Iraqi employees. “We’re not providing any personal identification information,” said company spokesman Douglas Ebner. “We have not done so up to now, and we’re not going to change.”

But many of these contractors don’t trust GLS to keep its word. Some are considering fleeing Iraq entirely, raising the prospect of U.S. service members losing their ability to talk and listen to Iraqis. “We either quit,” said Garrison, the pseudonym of an Iraqi interpreter, in an email, “or sign our own death warrants by turning the information [over] to the ministry.”

Terps go to extremes to safeguard their identities. Many are known to soldiers and marines by Anglicized names like Moe and Tommy and Big King Paul. When leaving U.S. bases to accompany troops on missions, it’s common for them to wear ski masks and wraparound sunglasses in the burning Iraqi heat, their hands covered in flame-retardant gloves so as not to leave behind so much as a fingerprint. Some don’t tell their families how they earn a living; others actually live on U.S. bases.

And for good reason: those who help the U.S. in Iraq are targets for insurgents, as are their families. While there aren’t available figures on how many Iraqis employed by the U.S. have been kidnapped or murdered, a well-received play, “Betrayed,” by the New Yorker’s George Packer, has chronicled the anxiety of collaborating with the U.S. in Iraq.

“There’s no future for us here,” a translator calling himself Big King Paul told me in Baghdad’s Khadimiya neighborhood in March 2007. “The terrorists know us. We can’t live in this country.”

In several cases, the terrorists are within the Iraqi government itself. Insurgents and militia members have infiltrated the ranks of the Iraqi police, and to a lesser extent, the Iraqi army — a systemic problem that retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, now President Obama’s national security adviser, identified in an influential 2007 report. Many political parties in Iraq, including aspects of the Shiite-dominated governing coalition, possess their own militias. And there remains a thriving kidnapping market in Iraq, creating a temptation among Finance Ministry bureaucrats to earn extra money by turning over case files on GLS employees to terrorists and criminals.

“Everyone knows the Iraqi police and all Iraqi security forces are either corrupt or [have] got something to do with militias or terrorist or insurgents,” said another Iraqi interpreter in an email.

The plight of Iraqis who work for the U.S. military as translators or interpreters has come up before. In March of 2006, Scott Pelley interviewed Paul Eaton, a former major-general who supervised U.S. troops in training the Iraqi army back in 2003 and 2004:

… “I have no doubt that the translators have saved a great number of American lives,” he tells Pelley.

And Eaton believes America owes them the same.

“Do you think it is politically impossible to open the doors to immigration to Iraqis because it’s an admission that the war has not gone well?” Pelley asks.

“The war is not going well. Everybody knows it. The president of the United States and our Congress need to admit that a population is at risk. At risk because they have thrown their lot in with us,” Eaton says.

How much risk? Well, like Rami, hidden behind the mask and glasses. He’s not an insurgent, but he’s in disguise because he works for America. He can be sure he’s being watched, and at the end of the day he’ll go home to his neighborhood to take his chances. Rami learned that even quitting his job didn’t protect him.

“After three months insurgents came to my neighbors and they were asking about me and my location,” he remembers. Rami then decided it was time to leave Iraq. “You know, I had a family member, was working with me, as a translator, in the same base. And he got killed,” he explains.

The family member had quit more than two years earlier, before being targeted by the killers. After that, Rami says he had to flee to Syria.

Flee, like so many others. At the Syrian borders, one can see caravans of cars leaving Iraq and heading towards Syria; no one is going the other way. The border post has been mobbed. There were about 1,000 people on the day 60 Minutes stopped by. It’s a refugee crisis that is largely unnoticed by the world.

The exodus of Iraqi refugees is one of the most under-reported stories of the war. The United Nations estimates that as many as two million Iraqis have left the country already and at various times over the winter they were coming across the border at a rate of 3,000 a day.

According to an article in today’s New York Times, “Of as many as two million Iraqi refugees around the world, only 13,000 were admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2008, which ended on Sept. 30, and another 17,000 are scheduled for fiscal 2009. …”

2 Responses to “Iraqi Translators At Risk Under New Iraqi Government”

  1. gcotharn says:

    I, also, have heard of the immigration difficulties of Iraqis who have helped the U.S. and are at risk. I don’t understand what the holdup is. After Vietnam, to our credit, we quickly allowed huge numbers of Vietnam immigrants into the U.S. If we were denying Iraqi immigration for political reasons, those reasoners have now been voted out of office, and things should change.

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