US betrays Iraqi Interpreters

June 5, 2007


George Packer in the New Yorker.

Of all the mistakes and disasters America has made in Iraq, this is the least excusable and most reprehensible. As we prepare to leave Iraq to anarchy, we are betraying the Iraqis who worked hardest with the Americans to set up a new country. However impossible that might have been, there’s no reason to leave the drivers and interpreters to almost certain death by the gangs of religious fanatics who are sure to kill all the “collaborators” they can.

Many of them are scrambling but unable to escape the country, and the corporation the US contracted to hire Iraqi interpreters pretends they don’t exist. Everyone of them should be greenlighted for a visa immediately – Bush could snap his fingers – but we can’t even get them back pay or medical care after bomb blasts. Who would ever trust America again if we can’t even take care of the Iraqis who risked the most to help us?

Listen to Terry Gross interview George Packer.

“Millions of Iraqis, spanning the country’s religious and ethnic spectrum, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the mostly young men and women who embraced America’s project so enthusiastically that they were prepared to risk their lives for it may constitute Iraq’s smallest minority. I came across them in every city: the young man in Mosul who loved Metallica and signed up to be a translator at a U.S. Army base; the DVD salesman in Najaf whose plans to study medicine were crushed by Baath Party favoritism, and who offered his services to the first American Humvee that entered his city. They had learned English from American movies and music, and from listening secretly to the BBC. Before the war, their only chance at a normal life was to flee the country—a nearly impossible feat. Their future in Saddam’s Iraq was, as the Metallica fan in Mosul put it, “a one-way road leading to nothing.” I thought of them as oddballs, like misunderstood high-school students whose isolation ends when they go off to college. In a similar way, the four years of the war created intense friendships, but they were forged through collective disappointment. The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America’s failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.”

“In Mosul, insurgents circulated a DVD showing the decapitations of two military interpreters. American soldiers stationed there expressed sympathy to their Iraqi employees, but, one interpreter told me, there was “no real reaction”: no offer of protection, in the form of a weapons permit or a place to live on base. He said, “The soldiers I worked with were friends and they felt sorry for us—they were good people—but they couldn’t help. The people above them didn’t care. Or maybe the people above them didn’t care.” This story repeated itself across the country: Iraqi employees of the U.S. military began to be kidnapped and killed in large numbers, and there was essentially no American response. Titan Corporation, of Chantilly, Virginia, which until December held the Pentagon contract for employing interpreters in Iraq, was notorious among Iraqis for mistreating its foreign staff. I spoke with an interpreter who was injured in a roadside explosion; Titan refused to compensate him for the time he spent recovering from second-degree burns on his hands and feet. An Iraqi woman working at an American base was recognized by someone she had known in college, who began calling her with death threats. She told me that when she went to the Titan representative for help he responded, “You have two choices: move or quit.” She told him that if she quit and stayed home, her life would be in danger. “That’s not my business,” the representative said. (A Titan spokesperson said, “The safety and welfare of all employees, including, of course, contract workers, is the highest priority.”)”


2 Responses to “US betrays Iraqi Interpreters”

  1. Marion Andrews Says:

    I am an American who worked as an Iraqi Police Advisor and used Titan interpreters along with my U.S. Army counterparts. I have tried to assist one particularly brave and loyal translator.who was nearly killed and lost his son and home to a Zarqawi attack for his efforts. I have tried to file his immigration application but there is no way to get him into the system as he is still working for the U.S Army in Iraq. I have contacted Senator Martinez Office and the State Dept. bureau of Population Refugees and Migration. I can’t believe that our government has no program to assist these honorable and loyal people who kept me alive there and will certainly be killed if we abandon them. I risked my life for my country but I need to know that my country really does care when people do that for the U.S. Government.

  2. Hi Marion. It’s really admirable what you’re doing. It must be happening to thousands of Iraqis, and plenty of Americans who can’t get their friends out.

    This should outrage anyone who hears about it – regardless of politics – but it doesn’t seem to. I think it’s more detestable than going to war in the first place, or any of the things we’ve done there. It’s just inexcuseable, and shames me.

    The normal reasons people have for not supplying visas just don’t apply here: these people are obviously not terrorists or even dangerous (in fact, most must be noble), they speak English (most anyway), and they’ve already risked their lives for the American occupation.

    If we ever did need help from people in any kind of similar situation, who would trust us?

    Maybe you could start a blog or something. I know it sounds like a tiny effort, but if there were some place for people like you to gather and start some sort of movement to get something done for them. It might not take off, but it’s worth thinking about. Once you got it up, it would only take a story on NPR or something to get attention, and soldiers or civilians who were in Iraq, working with “collaborating” Iraqis, would hear about it and get involved. Maybe an email to George Packer would be a start. Just an idea.

    If there is a site, could you let me know?

    I hope things work out for your translator. If you don’t mind, please let me know what happens. Good luck, and thanks for what you did over there yourself.

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