The Perilous Case of Iraq's Interpreters

The looming pullout of most if not all US forces from Iraq leaves their Iraqi interpreters facing unemployment, afraid for their lives and with a difficult decision: whether to stay or go. Interpreters interviewed at military and police facilities near Mosul in north Iraq all said they fear for their safety. But accepting special visas to the US still means leaving their country and in some cases their families for an uncertain future — an incredibly tough choice to make.

Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said that about 9,000 Iraqis were employed by the US military in various capacities as of July. These Iraqi employees stand to lose their jobs with the US military if all US troops leave by December 31, as is currently required.

And a significant number may still face unemployment even if the US and Iraq reach an accord on a post-2011 US training mission, as it would likely be much smaller than the current roughly 47,000-soldier contingent.

“I’m worried about my security (and) I’m worried about my family, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen after the Americans leave,” said Ismail, an interpreter for US soldiers partnered with the 3rd Federal Police Division, who requested that only his first name be used.

The 25-year-old Assyrian Catholic, who had his dark hair cut short and has tattoos on both arms, already knows well the dangers of working for the US in Iraq.

He did laundry at a US base in Baghdad in 2006, until he and his co-workers were told by men in the area — where he said there were many supporters of the Mahdi Army, anti-US cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s now-disbanded militia — that they had to quit. He did, and moved along with six other family members to the far more secure autonomous Kurdistan area in north Iraq. But Ismail’s co-workers were not so lucky.

“A week later, they killed the five guys who used to work with me, they killed all of them. I told them to quit, but they didn’t listen to me,” he said.

Ismail, who is married and has a daughter, later began working as an interpreter to support his family, and for the experience it offers, and has translated for the US military for three years now.

He was threatened again outside a US base near Mosul in 2010 by a group of men who he said gave him the message, in effect, that “if we see you next time in this area, we’re gonna kill you.” Militant groups in Iraq are just “waiting now for the Americans to leave, to go back again and fight each other,” he said.

He completed his interview for a visa to the US about three months ago and is now waiting to receive it. “Hopefully we’re gonna get visas before the Americans leave,” he said.

Iraqis who have worked for the United States for over a year can apply for a “special immigrant visa,” while those who have for less than a year can apply for refugee status while still in Iraq, which can lead to resettlement in the US. Both options allow recipients to take family with them. But for some, leaving Iraq is not an option.

John, a 30-year-old with stylish sunglasses and gelled hair who asked to be identified only by his nickname from American soldiers, was interpreting for US troops at Al Ghuzlani Warrior Training Centre south of Mosul.

He said he was worried about his safety after American troops leave Iraq and originally became an interpreter with dreams of going to the US, but he still turned down a visa to the United States.

“My father made me change my mind,” said John, who is married and has two sons, with a third baby on the way.

“I do have a brother, but he can’t handle it by himself, and my father, he suffers from a disease.” “I’m stuck,” John said, adding that he would like to take his parents with him to the US, but they do not speak English, and do not want to leave their home country. But staying in Iraq holds its own concerns.

John began working for US forces in 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was toppled by a US-led invasion. But in 2004, he was threatened by insurgents who posted his name and picture at a mosque near his home, demanding he quit working for the US.

He then moved from his home city, which he asked not be mentioned by name because his parents still live there, to Kurdistan and stopped translating for about nine months. But it was hard to find a job in Kurdistan, so he went back to work for the US again.

“I don’t know how I made it until today, but I’m still alive. We’ve been in a lot of situations, but I never got hit,” he said.

Other interpreters such as Wallace — who also asked to be identified only by a nickname — want to leave Iraq as soon as they possibly can. Even in the relatively secluded Al Ghuzlani training area, he wore a bandana-like face mask, sunglasses and a hat, to hide his identity.

“Right now, I’m very nervous because they (US soldiers) are leaving soon,” he said.

Wallace is a member of Iraq’s small Yazidi minority from Sinjar, a town to the west of Mosul, and has worked as a translator for the US, mainly in north Iraq, since 2008. He decided to work with the US because he needed money to support his family, including his sister, who was ill, he said.

Wallace is not married, but said he is “worried a lot about my family” being targeted because of his work with the US.

At one point, he was told by a taxi driver in Kirkuk who saw him leaving a US base that “your money is haram,” or forbidden by Islam. “You’re not supposed to work with them.” “It was like a threat,” he said.

He completed his interview for a US visa five months ago, and is waiting to receive one. “Once I get my visa, I will go to the States and I will never come back — I mean, we cannot live here,” he said. Interpreters “are gonna be killed, no question about that, if they (the Americans) leave us.”

Taken from The Gulf Today: 24.08.11