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'Combat Linguists' Battle on Two Fronts

Interpreters, some U.S. citizens, face not just Iraqi insurgents but suspicious GIs as well.

June 05, 2005|John M. Glionna and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Tarik, a newly minted U.S. Army private first class, recalls his first challenge in Iraq: convincing fellow GIs he wasn't a terrorist.

The 24-year-old Morocco native was among the first graduates of a U.S. military program to provide Arabic-speaking "combat linguists" for American ground troops, one of the most precarious roles in the Iraq conflict.

During basic training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., scores of foreign-born recruits are warned that their backgrounds make them targets for Iraqi extremists who view them as traitors. But nobody warns them about the soldiers they're sent to assist.

In Iraq, some interpreters said, soldiers mocked their Arabic surnames and accused them of being "on the wrong side" of the conflict. Suspicious of his accent and dark features, some soldiers disdainfully labeled Tarik a hajji, a term of respect among Muslims that many American soldiers use with scorn.

The Boston resident felt like he was fighting two wars.

"I don't care what you think of me," he recalled telling fellow soldiers after arriving in Baghdad in April 2004. "I'm wearing this uniform. I'm just as much of an American soldier as you are."

The Army calls them 09 Limas -- military-speak for the linguist program. Answering recruitment ads, they volunteered to help fill the U.S. military's desperate need for speakers of Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Kurdish and other languages, often returning to the homes of their ancestors to do the job.

When the first 09 Limas landed in Iraq last year, they immediately bridged a cultural gap between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis.

On routine patrols in Baghdad or exploring possibly hostile desert towns, the 09 Limas try to fathom the wordless communication of hand and body gestures. On sweeps of suspected terrorists, they look for the often-subtle Arabic accents and dialects that can suggest a detainee's nationality and possible intent.

They also help defuse misunderstandings. One interpreter determined that documents found during a recent search of a Baghdad home were not weapons-smuggling blueprints, as U.S. soldiers suspected, but sewing patterns.

Although the need for native Arabic-speaking soldiers appears limitless in Iraq, let alone the rest of the Middle East, only 65 recruits have graduated from the 17-week program. Officials plan to send 100 more in the next year.

"Without them," an Army commander in Baghdad wrote in an e-mail, "my men and I could not do two-thirds of our mission."


The 09 Limas are no strangers to the Middle East's political turmoil.

Their ranks include a former member of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard who lost his taste for the regime; a Kurd whose brother was gassed by the dictator; a onetime Lebanese freedom fighter who began waging war at age 12; and a Sudanese recruit whose brother was among 17 coalition workers kidnapped and killed by Iraqi insurgents in December.

The need for their skills is dire. U.S. troops often must rely on hand signals in communicating with Iraqis as entire combat brigades struggle to make do with only one native Arabic-speaking U.S. soldier.

The military has hired countless contract interpreters or local civilians with doubtful English skills and often-veiled political agendas. As a result, many U.S. soldiers feel more comfortable with Arabic-speakers from the United States with a knowledge of slang and Army acronyms.

It is a dangerous assignment. In 2004, at least 26 civilian interpreters were killed in Iraq, according to the American Translators Assn. Lt. Col. Tom Plunkett, Army commander in Baghdad, described how insurgents recently targeted one of his unit's local interpreters. The woman was shot 65 times as she left home for work. The commander said he had lost two other interpreters recently.

For security reasons, the Army has asked that 09 Limas training to go to Iraq remain anonymous, and only the first names be used of those who have been deployed or have returned from the war.

U.S. officials say that, unlike locally hired interpreters, 09 Limas are trained soldiers armed with automatic weapons and Kevlar vests who live and work full time with their units.

Still, many recruits don't tell their parents they've gone to Iraq or even that they've enlisted. Most would worry too much.

"These translators are targets," said American Translators Assn. spokesman Kevin Hendzel. "They're the military's lifeline in communicating with regular Iraqis. The insurgents are smart. They know this; they're going after them."

The recruits' reasons for volunteering vary. Some 09 Limas received expedited citizenship in exchange for a commitment of two years of active duty. Former cab drivers and car rental clerks hope their experience will lead to higher-paying jobs. Still others, already U.S. citizens, have volunteered to help an adopted homeland they say has provided them a better life.

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