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Iraq's 'terps' face suspicion from both sides

The US has isolated its Iraqi interpreters, worried they could be working with insurgents.

By Charles LevinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2006


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.

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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."

New restrictions on interpreters

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?"

Second-class citizens

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.