The debt we owe Iraqi interpreters

After the foolish mask ban, more protection is a must.

The Iraqi pointed at me, pointed at his watch, and mimed an explosion. He'd been shouting frantically since he arrived at our small forward operating base minutes before, but like most American soldiers, I didn't speak Arabic. Had he come to warn us or to threaten us? Car bomb? Another mortar attack? When and where? Looking around desperately, I spotted a young woman in her early 20s bounding toward us. Wissam, one of our Iraqi interpreters, had arrived. After a brief conversation with the man, she turned back to me and said, "He says there is an IED [improvised explosive device] on the main road to Haswa. Good thing you have me around, I think."

For a platoon leader on the streets of Iraq, a trusted interpreter can be the difference between a successful patrol and a body bag. At great personal risk, interpreters bridge the language gap, guide soldiers and marines through unfamiliar streets, serve as cultural advisers, and make crucial introductions. American strategy in Iraq hinges on building positive relationships between US forces and Iraqi communities, a task that would be impossible without dependable interpreters.

Unfortunately, the same US military that depends on them has needlessly placed Iraqi interpreters and their families in jeopardy. For the past several months, commanders in Baghdad enforced an ill-considered policy prohibiting Iraqi interpreters from wearing masks to conceal their identities while on patrol.

Although the policy was just rescinded, thanks to a public outcry and the efforts of Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, much of the damage and confusion it caused remains. The military must now prove that it is still a partner Iraqis can trust.

Interpreters have good reason to hide their faces. Terrorists and insurgent groups devote enormous time and effort to identifying and killing the Iraqis who work with Americans. They've slain some 300 so far, according to the Checkpoint One Foundation. Many, if not most, interpreters lead double lives, unable to tell their closest friends or even their families about their work.

It is impossible to know how many Iraqi interpreters were identified while the mask ban remained in effect. What is for certain, however, is that insurgent groups such as the Mahdi Army circulate photos of suspected interpreters to terrorist cells across Iraq. While US troops return to well-guarded bases at the end of a patrol, interpreters go back to their unguarded homes, many in hostile communities.

The military must now take steps to protect the Iraqi interpreters it so recklessly exposed. Failing to do so would betray some of our most important allies, and it would ultimately place US troops at risk.

Since 2006, the military has shifted troops from large, fortified, and isolated bases to smaller outposts within Iraqi neighborhoods. Instead of relying on massive blast walls and guard towers, troops now count on the goodwill of locals to warn them of impending attacks.

With their language skills and local knowledge, interpreters can transform an isolated platoon outpost from an embattled fortress into a welcome part of the community. Without that local knowledge to protect them, however, the troops are frighteningly vulnerable to attack. If interpreters cannot trust the military to protect them and their families, US troops will not be able to rely on them for the information their security depends on.

A US military spokesman originally defended the mask ban by asserting: "We are a professional army and professional units don't conceal their identity…."

Professional armies also protect their own. In some cases, interpreters and their families may need to be moved onto US bases where they can be protected. Interpreters under serious threat should be quickly resettled in the United States.

Rescinding the ban has cooled the political heat, but it is not sufficient to protect our comrades. Those who risk their lives alongside us, and who stand for our shared vision of a peaceful Iraq, deserve better.

Wissam believed deeply in that vision, but will never see it realized. In May of 2004, she and two other interpreters left the gates of our base, followed by three Mahdi Army gunmen. She never made it home.

Michael Breen is a former Army captain who served with the infantry in Iraq and led paratroopers in Afghanistan. A student at Yale Law School, he helps lead the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

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