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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

U.S. contractors refuse to ID Iraqi translators; 300 killed since 2003

BAGHDAD — U.S. security contractors have decided not to cooperate with a request from the Baghdad government for the names of their Iraqi translators.   

Industry sources said major U.S. contractors have concluded that information on their Iraqi translators could lead to assassination attempts by everybody from Al Qaida to Shi'ite militias. They said the translators would be accused of collaborating with U.S. military operations in which Iraqi civilians were killed.

"Translators' personal identifiers absolutely will not be turned over," DynCorp International spokesman Douglas Ebner said.

More than 300 Iraqi interpreters with the U.S. military have been killed since 2003. Until late 2008, Iraqi translators, accompanying U.S. military and security contractors during combat and reconstruction missions, wore masks to conceal their identities.

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On Feb. 1, the Iraqi government formally required U.S. contractors to relay the names and addresses of Iraqi staffers. Under the Status of Forces Agreement, enacted on Jan. 1, information on the Iraqi staffers, including translators, would be processed by the Iraqi Finance Ministry for tax purposes.

DynCorp has been a leading security contractor for the U.S. government and military in Iraq. DynCorp subsidiary Global Linguist Solutions was said to employ up to 7,000 Iraqi translators.

"We certainly understand the security issues at stake here," Ebner said.

The U.S. Fox News network said the Iraqi government has not guaranteed that the identities of Iraqi staffers would be kept secret. Fox quoted a GLS executive as saying he feared for the life of anybody who provided their details to the Finance Ministry.

"Every translator knows of at least one other translator who has been tortured and killed," an Iraqi translator, identified only as Jasim, said. "I'm wanted by Al Qaida, Sunni and Shiite militias, and there's a price on my head. And they want me to hand over my address?"

Industry sources said U.S. security contractors have appealed to the Baghdad government to drop its demand for information on Iraqi staffers. They said Iraqi translators — many of whom still hope for visas to enter the United States — were preparing to quit if the government refused to abandon its demand.

"Our translators risk their lives to help us," U.S. Army specialist Elisabeth Keene said. "Handing over their information to a new government would create a ready-made hit list if terrorists got a hold of it."

In January 2009, the U.S. military reversed a decision to require Iraqi interpreters to remove their masks during counter-insurgency operations. Officials acknowledged that the mask ban reflected an overly optimistic assessment on the security situation in Iraq.

"It's clear that the situation in Iraq is so fluid that it would be nearly impossible to make that kind of judgment with certainty," Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said. "That's a big chance to take with the lives of people who are risking their lives to help our troops and our country."

The mask ban was instituted in September 2008 as part of a U.S. military effort to engender trust with Iraqis. The decision to expose Iraqi interpreters angered U.S. commanders, who said their Iraqi staffers were refusing to leave their offices.

"Given the improved security environment, concealment of identities engenders a perception of mistrust among some elements of the population," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

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