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They're on speaking terms with danger

Iraqis who work as interpreters for U.S. troops lead secret lives in fear of militants who call them traitors.

October 21, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

YOUSIFIYA, IRAQ — Ghost is as mysterious as his name suggests.

Every 45 days, he slips away from his job and heads home for a two-week break. Once there, he remains inside. He does not visit friends, take walks, go on dates, or do any of the things that would be expected of a handsome 27-year-old. He sees only his parents and siblings, because they are the only people who know that during his long stretches away, Ghost works as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

It is a job that pays triple what most Iraqi companies offer, but it comes with a heavy price. Interpreters share the risks when U.S. troops go out on patrol, but they don't carry weapons. They also know that insurgents would kill them or their relatives if they knew how they earned their money.

So they live like phantoms. They don't reveal their true names, using monikers such as Ghost, Scarface, Snake or just plain William. They do not allow their photos to be taken. They fear being exposed if they leave the confines of their bases.

They also fear being left behind after President Bush said he would adopt the advice of his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David. H. Petraeus, who said last month that security had improved enough for some American forces to leave.

"You know the situation. Every interpreter, if he stays in Iraq, will get killed," David, a former tour guide, said with a tone of resignation in his voice.

Lives on the line

At least 257 Iraqi interpreters have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). It cited figures from L-3 Titan Group, the U.S. company that provides the military with most of its interpreters.

Company officials did not respond to requests for comment, but at a February job fair in Baghdad, a Titan recruiter said about 7,000 Iraqis were working as military interpreters.

Kennedy co-sponsored a bill approved by Congress in May that for two years increases to 500 annually from 50 the number of special immigrant visas granted to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters working for the U.S. military or its contractors. A State Department official said Oct. 9 that all 500 visas for the 2007 fiscal year ending Sept. 30 had been allotted, but there was no breakdown of how many went to Iraqis and how many to Afghans.

Denmark, which in August pulled nearly all of its 460 soldiers out of Iraq, secretly flew about 200 interpreters and other contract workers and their families out of the country so they would not face harm.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced this month that interpreters who had worked for at least 12 months with British troops would be eligible for financial aid to help them resettle in Iraq or elsewhere, and in some cases, Britain. His announcement came as he unveiled plans to cut Britain's troop presence in Iraq in half by next spring.

Difficult process

There are no such plans in place for interpreters with the U.S. military, who must obtain a letter of recommendation from a general before they can submit visa applications. That alone can take months, said Army Capt. Chris Sanchez of Los Angeles, who has tried to help several people obtain such letters.

"It's stupid," said Sanchez, who becomes visibly angry when he talks about the interpreters' plight. "They want to be Americans. They're doing more to fight the war on terror than most Americans."

Three interpreters attached to Sanchez's unit, the 4th Battalion of the 31st Infantry Brigade here in Yousifiya, have been killed in the last year. Like all military interpreters, Frank, Scarface and Zidon were unarmed, but they went on missions with the U.S. troops and died in attacks that also killed more than 20 Americans. The unit is to leave Iraq next month, heightening concern among interpreters who had hoped to get their applications processed before the soldiers they have come to know departed.

"My family is scared, especially my mother," Ghost said as he sipped coffee one morning at a U.S.-Iraqi base in Yousifiya, where he was to interpret for Sanchez at a meeting with local leaders.

"When I go home for breaks they ask, 'Is it dangerous or is it good?' I tell them it's good. My mother says, 'We hear there are a lot of bombs. Aren't you scared?' I tell them, 'No, I'm with the colonel. I'm a gentleman and stay inside.' "

That's not true. Two days later, Ghost joined troops on a nighttime air assault to search for insurgents suspected of killing five U.S. troops and an Iraqi soldier.

But lying is a constant.

William tells people he works as a guard for a government ministry. Caesar, an avuncular 40-year-old, says he works at a chicken-processing plant.

The fear remains even for those who have left the job.

Anees Baban worked for U.S. troops in Baghdad for more than two years, beginning in June 2003. He quit in 2005 when he was transferred to a base north of the capital, because of the dangerous commute.

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