Iraq's 'terps' face suspicion from both sides
The US has isolated its Iraqi interpreters, worried they could be working with insurgents.
MOSUL, IRAQ — He's known at the US military base here as Roger, from the radio lingo used in old American war movies that he watched to learn English. Like the other Iraqi interpreters working with the Americans, he is certain that if his identity were revealed he would be killed.
To protect his family he visits them only once a year, even though they live just minutes away, and his friends think he works for a cable TV company overseas. Roger's concern for his and his family's well-being is not overblown. Interpreters here - known by US troops as "terps" - estimate that in Mosul alone 50 to 60 of their colleagues have been murdered by insurgents.
But on both sides of this conflict they are regarded with suspicion. They are considered traitors by their fellow countrymen and potential enemy spies by their US employers.
"If you look at our situation it's really risky and kind of horrible," says Roger. "Outside the wire everybody looks at us like we are back-stabbers, like we betrayed our country and our religion, and then inside the wire they look at us like we might be terrorists."
Concerns that interpreters could be working with insurgents prompted the US military to severely restrict interpreters' freedoms earlier this year.
They live the life of a garrisoned soldier, but they are forbidden many of the luxuries that make life on a US military base tolerable. Cellular phones, e-mail, satellite TV, computers, video game consoles, CD players, cameras, the weight room, and even the swimming pool are all off limits.
Entering the mess hall, interpreters alone are singled out and searched at every meal. They are not allowed to take food to-go for fear they might be feeding an insurgent who is on the base illegally. Some commanders take their interpreters' national ID cards so they can't leave the base without permission.
"It gives you the feeling that you are not really trusted," says an interpreter known simply as Vivian, a 20-something Kurdish woman whose good looks invariably turns soldiers' heads.
It is, of course, a valid concern in a struggle against a faceless insurgency in which every Iraqi is a potential enemy.
An interpreter for the previous brigade stationed here was caught spying for insurgents, and in Baghdad there have been cases of interpreters calling in grid coordinates to insurgent mortar teams.
"These guys [have guts] to do what they do. And we'd be nowhere without them. We'd be lost," says US Army Staff Sgt. Paul Volino from East Liverpool, Ohio. But, he adds, "You always have this fear that they might be leaking op-sec [operational security] stuff. You want to trust them but you're still reserved."
While bans on cellphones are easy to defend, other rules seem hard to justify to many.
"It doesn't make any sense at all," says Sgt. Matthew Chipman, from Beardstown, Ill., who is in charge of the interpreters for the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team's 2-1 Battalion, stationed in Mosul. "What are they going to do, send information through the weights or through the swimming pool?"
Such rules demonstrate why the US effort here leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of so many Iraqis who find themselves treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
And it's not just interpreters who suffer the indignity of US suspicions.
At an air base in Mosul, civilian contractors, soldiers, and Western journalists are given beds and allowed to walk around freely while they wait for flights. Meanwhile, a squad of Iraqi police traveling on a US military flight sleeps on rocks in a fenced-in pen, guarded by US soldiers.
"The terps and all the local nationals are always going to be treated [poorly] except for by the people that they immediately work for," says Sergeant Chipman.
The new, more stringent rules, which interpreters say are having a demoralizing effect, come as the US is having an increasingly difficult time recruiting adequate numbers of English-speaking Iraqis willing to work with American forces.
Chipman says his battalion is desperate for interpreters. Other interpreters bemoan the poor quality of those now being hired.
"In the beginning it was so difficult to get a job as a terp," says one interpreter called "Bob," a musician from the Kurdish city of Dahook.
"Now, many terps don't know English and they get a job," he says. "Someone will tell them 'There's an IED over there' and they'll go to a US soldier and go 'Boom boom' and point. It's miserable. If you can say 'What's up? How you doing?' in English, you're going to get a job."
Indeed, interpreters are in many ways the public face of the US occupation here and language skills are essential. It is Roger, not the platoon leader he works for, who calms, questions, and communicates with the scores of Iraqis these soldiers deal with on a daily basis.
On a recent patrol here in Mosul, a mother and daughter cowered in fear at the sight of US troops in their front yard. It seemed like it might become one more battle for Iraqi hearts and minds that would be lost.
But Roger stepped in quickly to allay their worries. He gives a moving defense of the US occupation. "Why are you afraid?" the Sunni Arab, a native of this northern Iraqi city, asks as tears well up in the teenage daughter's frightened eyes.
"It's not the Americans who are going to hurt you. They're here to help you. It's the terrorists you should fear," he says.
Those interpreters who are sticking it out say they do it for the money - the $1,050 monthly salary for combat interpreters is a decent salary in Iraq today, though it's nearly a third less than many Western media outlets pay their interpreters.
Many of them do it because they believe in what the US is trying to accomplish in Iraq. In fact, they seem among the most fervent supporters of the US effort here. But most of all, they say, they hope their loyal service will earn them American citizenship.
In their Army-issued fatigues, body armor, and Kevlar helmets, the terps are indistinguishable from the soldiers they serve with, except for the ski masks many of them wear to protect their identities. They go everywhere soldiers go and face the same myriad of threats as any infantryman.
"I have a dream that one day the army will recognize their good terps and let us go to America," says Roger, who cheered US Humvees when the US first rolled into Mosul in 2003.
Unlike a US soldier, however, who will serve 12 months in Iraq and then return home, many of these interpreters have essentially served three consecutive tours of duty - going home to see their families for just a handful of days every few months.
In 28 months of combat patrols with the US Army, Roger has weathered car bombs, rocket propelled grenades, scores of firefights, and more IEDs (improvised explosive devices) than he can count.
"I can't even rewind my brain to think about this," he says. "Now I just laugh at IEDs when they go off. But I no longer have good hearing in my right ear."
The interpreter named Vivian has been working for the US Army for three years now and lives in a two-person barrack surrounded by US soldiers, a somewhat nontraditional living arrangement for a young Iraqi girl from rural Kurdistan.
"My parents no longer consider me a daughter," she says, sitting cross-legged on a flowery pink bedspread, brushing freshly shampooed hair. "They think of me as a soldier now. I spend my days in uniform doing exactly the same things the soldiers do, so I guess I pretty much am a soldier."