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Austin Bodetti

The Iraqi translators betrayed by the United States

Iraq recently redirected attention to IS after it overtook a third of the country [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 April, 2018

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Feature: Iraqis who risked their lives for the US military now find themselves stranded in a country that has very little patience for former translators, reports Austin Bodetti.

When the United States began the daunting task of rebuilding Iraq in 2003, one challenge seemed more challenging than all the others - the language barrier.

The Defence and State Departments lacked the army of Arabic linguists that it would take to coordinate counter-insurgency and nation-building in Iraq, so they turned to a resource of which the country had no shortage: the thousands of Iraqis who had studied English.

In 2018, with the Iraq war nothing but a distant memory for many Americans, the Iraqis who once risked their lives interpreting Arabic for the US now find themselves stranded. They live in a country with little patience for former interpreters who, as some Iraqis see it, facilitated the military occupation of Iraq.

Special Immigrant Visas, a State Department initiative to provide asylum to Afghan and Iraqi contractors, have allowed some former interpreters to emigrate to the US. Nonetheless, thousands remain stuck in Iraq. 

The New Arab spoke to Laith al-Haydar, a former interpreter, to learn more about the difficulties faced in the aftermath of working for the US.

"I started as an interpreter for the American military in July 2003," he told The New Arab. "Back then, the work was so easy: there was no time-consuming security scanning or background check. You just met the officer and, as long as he liked your English, you were in. At first, the job went nicely and smoothly. I would just interpet for some meetings between American officers and tribal elders. The situation changed after 2004, when the insurgencies in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq heated up."

You just met the officer and, as long as he liked your English, you were in

As more Iraqis joined the insurgency, al-Haydar found that his new employment was growing more dangerous. 

"I had lived in Baghdad for more than 23 years, but, suddenly, people in my neighbourhood were watching me and my other friends who worked as interpreters," he recalled. "It was considered a betrayal to work with the invaders."

Iraq was initially included in the US president's
'Muslim Ban' [Click to enlarge]

In particular, Iraqis sympathetic to Iran had a problem with Shias - such as al-Haydar - assisting the US, the principal "enemy" of the ideologues in Tehran.

"One day," al-Haydar remembered, "I received a threatening letter. The same month, one of my colleagues got killed in front of his house. It got to the point that many of my friends at the American military base told me to quit my job as an interpreter before things got too bad. Ultimately, I decided to take their advice."

Soon after, al-Haydar took a similar job as a freelance interpreter for Western journalists, contributing translations for articles in newspapers including The Wall Street Journal.

The threats to his life have receded somewhat, but many other former interpreters have been less lucky. Sixty Iraqi interpreters who had worked for the United Kingdom lost their lives at the hands of sectarian death squads by 2007.

In Afghanistan, where interpreters face risks similar to their Iraqi counterparts, one dies every 36 hours.

And as the US withdrew from both countries, the risks only grew.

I had lived in Baghdad for more than 23 years, but, suddenly, people in my neighbourhood were watching me and my other friends who worked as interpreters... It was considered a betrayal to work with the invaders

The rise of the Islamic State group drew some of the pressure off the former interpreters as Iraqis of all sects redirected their attention to the armed group that had overtaken a third of their country.

Last year, Al-Haydar even felt safe enough to return to his previous job, working as an interpreter for the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service's American trainers. Even so, he still hopes that the US will grant him a Special Immigrant Visa, whose requirements he has met for more than a decade.

"Due to the constant political crises in Iraq, every part of the quality of life here has declined: education, health, security, environment, and even social manners," he told The New Arab.

"The reason any family man would think of leaving Iraq is to seek a better life. That's why I applied for a visa to the US in 2012." 

Al-Haydar, a father of two, has been waiting for his visa ever since.

He will likely have to wait a while longer. Congress has to approve funding for the visas before Iraqis such as al-Haydar can receive them, and policymakers no longer consider Iraq a priority as the US shifts its attention to other wars.

US President Donald Trump's hostility to immigration from the Middle East will also likely hinder efforts to provide visas to Iraqi interpreters. Last year, Trump included Iraq on his notorious travel ban, only agreeing to remove it when Iraq promised expanded cooperation on the deportation of its nationals from the US.

Amid all this diplomatic and political manoeuvring, al-Haydar finds himself wondering whether he, his wife, and his sons will ever set foot in the US.

Iraq remains far from safe, and the US will likely have to maintain a presence there for some time if it wants to prevent the return of the Islamic State group. However, American soldiers may discover that few Iraqis want to work for them if the US, which has jeopardised their safety in the first place, offers them no guarantees of protection.

For now, Iraqis who have already made that fateful decision - Iraqis like al-Haydar - must just wait and see.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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