How do you translate "death"?

A group of Iraqi translators say their American employer won't protect them from deadly insurgents -- who they say have infiltrated the company.

Published February 12, 2005 1:12AM (EST)

"Mohammed," wearing a blue FUBU jersey and a backward baseball cap, pounds my hand with his when we meet. "Wassup, dawg?" he drawls. Tucked in the belt of his baggy jeans is a 9 mm pistol. He swaggers over to the cheap couch in my hotel room. Slumping, legs splayed, he kicks his unlaced Timberland-style boots onto the coffee table and casually recounts how he's become "a dead man."

He is no gangsta run afoul of the law but an Iraqi translator for the U.S. Marines. Or was. This past fall he quit the job he loved after Iraqi insurgents passed sentence -- beheading with no chance of parole or appeal -- on him and his father, an outspoken Shiite who translates for a U.S. Army unit. Members of Jama'at al-Tawhid Wa'al-Jihad (One God and Holy War), the group headed by radical militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, wrote the death threat in a letter and threw it in the front yard of Mohammed's family home in Baghdad.

"My mother went crazy when she saw it," he says. "But my father just changed to another unit and told the neighbors he quit. But guys were watching me and knew I still worked with the Marines."

Mohammed was hired by Titan Corp., a private military contractor based in San Diego, which, according to a military spokesperson last year, had 4,700 translators working with the military, most of them in and around Iraq and Afghanistan. Mohammed has worked with the Army and Marines, accompanying them on raids, interviewing Iraqis, and helping the soldiers identify and locate insurgents. Working for the Marines, Mohammed adds, made him a marked man, because it was the Marines who stormed Fallujah last fall to stem the insurgent uprising that began with the brutal murder of four American security workers. Fallujah was also considered al-Zarqawi's headquarters until U.S. forces stormed it.

No hard statistics exist for how many translators have been threatened or killed by insurgents. But in the past week, I've met five Iraqi translators, all of whom have worked for the U.S. military, who told me they fear for their lives -- which is why none of them would allow me to use their real names. They say that despite the newfound optimism surrounding the Iraq election on Jan. 30, insurgents remain an omnipotent and deadly force -- especially to the thousands of Iraqi workers who have cast their lot with the Americans.

Just as disconcerting, says one translator, it scared the hell out of him when he recently discovered that a close friend, who before the U.S. invasion of Iraq had served in the Fedayeen Saddam, a deadly paramilitary group of Saddam loyalists thought to be the backbone of the insurgency, was now working as a translator for Titan. '"That is when I knew the 'muj' [insurgents] had spies inside Titan," he says.

A senior U.S. official at the Baghdad embassy, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledges the possibility that some translators could be spies for insurgent groups. "Look, I can say that I am aware this is a potential problem," he says. "But we take every precaution we can and I am unaware of an embassy employee turning out to have worked for the insurgents. But we are well aware of the potential here."

Mohammed, who was hired by Titan, says the company screens translators, including him, for past affiliations with Saddam's security services. But in a chaotic place like Iraq, he says, it's hard to tell who the insurgents are and aren't. Titan did not return Salon's requests for an interview. Nor did U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

What Titan has not done, say the translators, is offer them security of their own. They say their requests to the company for money, weapons or even gun permits are routinely denied. After getting the death threat from Tawhid and Jihad, Mohammed says, his Marine unit offered to put him up on its Fallujah base. One soldier "gave me a gun they had taken from [a suspected insurgent]," he says. "But I am Iraqi. I cannot live on a base forever." And with the job paying $600 a month, Mohammed doesn't have enough money to leave Iraq. He says he asked Titan to pay for him to go into hiding, but the company refused. "It was live on the base or be fired," he says.

Until the death threats started raining down on them, Mohammed and the translators say, the risk of the job had been worth it. The money is good for Iraq and all of them show an appreciation for helping the military do as little harm in Iraq as possible. Although they are considered traitors by a few million of their countrymen, the translators say it's not just money but also a sense of nationalistic pride that sends them out each day.

"If I am there, I can help make sure the Americans treat the Iraqis with some respect, keep them from hurting the good Iraqis, and help them find the people hurting the new Iraq," Mohammed says. "And I love the Marines. They are my friends; they called me brother. I was with them in fighting every day and I miss them."

"Omar," a 32-year old Iraqi who quit his work with Titan a few months ago over security issues, also misses working for the Americans. From April to October 2004, Omar worked as a translator for the medical staff in the Abu Ghraib prison hospital. However, the translator, who has a gentle nature, provides an extraordinarily different view of the scandalous penitentiary, where prisoners were abused by military police guards, intelligence officials and, allegedly, a translator hired by Titan.

"I loved this job because I was able to help injured Iraqis get help from American doctors," Omar says. "I am proud to help Iraqis. I would find out if they were allergic to anything, help them explain what was wrong with them to the doctors. I know what they say about Abu Ghraib. But if you were hurt, the Americans are such good people, they would do anything to save an Iraqi, even if he killed Americans."

Even the captured mujahedin insurgents, Omar says, noticed the professionalism of the doctors. "Some muj would cry to me that they would have never fought the Americans if they had known how kind the doctors were. An Iraqi would never treat a wounded enemy. The Americans would fight to save their lives."

Like Mohammed, Omar says he quit his job because he feared for his life and Titan would not protect him from the insurgents. "I always carry a gun now," Omar says. "But the only time I couldn't was when I drove in and out of Abu Ghraib. That's when they would have tried to kill me. But Titan made me come and go unarmed."

Some translators who have bravely hung on to their jobs are experiencing another kind of panic; with a U.S. withdrawal possible in a few years, they fear they will be out of a job. When asked what she will do when the Americans leave, one translator, living and working on a U.S. base by Baghdad International Airport, says she's not worried. She "will marry an American soldier" who loves her, she says. Pressed on what she will do if that doesn't work out, she sounds alarmed. "No, they must take us to America. Or we will be killed."

Although he quit his job with the Marines last fall, Mohammed says he remains on a hit list by Zarqawi's group. So he's moving through the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq, where the insurgents don't operate effectively. He still doesn't spend too much time in one place and cannot return to his family home in Baghdad.

"I'd last an hour, maybe," he jokes about seeing his home again. He then tells me that I should leave Iraq immediately. "I know I'm dead," he says. "But you can leave here. Go home, my man. This shit is no joke."

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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