Iraqi Translators Fear Retribution

By
Monday, February 02, 2009 at 6:00 am
Documents obtained by TWI support claims by Iraqi translators that the shift of power toward Iraqi officials could put them in danger.

Documents obtained by TWI support claims by Iraqi translators that the shift of power toward Iraqi officials could put them in danger.

In the United States, it would be a mundane tax form, with standard provisions for cataloging an employee’s tax obligations. Full name. Citizen ID number. Address. Phone. Specifications about any children.

But Form D/4a from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance is sending waves of anxiety through the community of Iraqis who work as linguists, translators and interpreters for the U.S. military in Iraq. For the “terps,” as many U.S. troops and diplomats call them, the form is a prelude to a disaster. Unless their identities are kept a closely guarded secret, they fear, they and their families will be hunted by insurgents, militias and death squads — many of whom are tied to or work for the Iraqi government — for collaborating with the U.S. military.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Several weeks ago, Global Linguist Solutions (GLS), the company that holds the contract with the U.S. military to provide translators, entered into negotiations with the Iraqi government about what their new obligations are for withholding employee taxes once the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — which, among other things, gives the Iraqi government increased authority over U.S. contractors — goes into effect. The company said emphatically that it has no intention of turning over identifying information for its roughly 7,000 Iraqi employees. “We’re not providing any personal identification information,” said company spokesman Douglas Ebner. “We have not done so up to now, and we’re not going to change.”

But many of these contractors don’t trust GLS to keep its word. Some are considering fleeing Iraq entirely, raising the prospect of U.S. service members losing their ability to talk and listen to Iraqis. “We either quit,” said Garrison, the pseudonym of an Iraqi interpreter, in an email, “or sign our own death warrants by turning the information [over] to the ministry.”

Terps go to extremes to safeguard their identities. Many are known to soldiers and marines by Anglicized names like Moe and Tommy and Big King Paul. When leaving U.S. bases to accompany troops on missions, it’s common for them to wear ski masks and wraparound sunglasses in the burning Iraqi heat, their hands covered in flame-retardant gloves so as not to leave behind so much as a fingerprint. Some don’t tell their families how they earn a living; others actually live on U.S. bases.

And for good reason: those who help the U.S. in Iraq are targets for insurgents, as are their families. While there aren’t available figures on how many Iraqis employed by the U.S. have been kidnapped or murdered, a well-received play, “Betrayed,” by the New Yorker’s George Packer, has chronicled the anxiety of collaborating with the U.S. in Iraq.

“There’s no future for us here,” a translator calling himself Big King Paul told me in Baghdad’s Khadimiya neighborhood in March 2007. “The terrorists know us. We can’t live in this country.”

In several cases, the terrorists are within the Iraqi government itself. Insurgents and militia members have infiltrated the ranks of the Iraqi police, and to a lesser extent, the Iraqi army — a systemic problem that retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, now President Obama’s national security adviser, identified in an influential 2007 report. Many political parties in Iraq, including aspects of the Shiite-dominated governing coalition, possess their own militias. And there remains a thriving kidnapping market in Iraq, creating a temptation among Finance Ministry bureaucrats to earn extra money by turning over case files on GLS employees to terrorists and criminals.

“Everyone knows the Iraqi police and all Iraqi security forces are either corrupt or [have] got something to do with militias or terrorist or insurgents,” said another Iraqi interpreter in an email.

Indeed, the very finance ministry that seeks employee identification information is run by a man named Bayan Jabr, who has ties to the Badr Corps militia affiliated with one of the major Shiite political parties, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. In fall 2005, Jabr served as interior minister when U.S. forces discovered that the basement of the interior ministry was used as a torture chamber for Sunnis by Iraqi police officers. At the time, Jabr defended himself by saying, “Nobody was beheaded or killed.”

On Dec. 23, James “Spider” Marks, the retired Army two-star general who serves as CEO of GLS, sent GLS’ Iraqi employees a memorandum in Arabic informing them of impending tax changes brought by the SOFA. “What is required from the company GLS to do as an employer is to deduct the determined amount from your monthly wages and pay it to the Iraqi government,” Marks wrote. The memorandum sparked a widespread fear among linguists, translators and interpreters that GLS would compromise employee identities as an aspect of compliance with the SOFA. A copy of the memo was acquired by The Washington Independent and translated into English. GLS would not provide the original English copy of the document but confirmed that TWI’s translation was “substantially accurate.”

Ebner, the GLS spokesman, confirmed that the company was in ongoing negotiations with the Iraqi ministries of finance and interior to determine the scope of its new legal obligations to the Iraqi government. But he said that employee concerns were unfounded. “The type of information pertaining to personal identification for employees is not going to be provided,” Ebner said. “We are fully confident that we’re going to work out procedures with the Iraqi authorities that both comply with the tax provisions of Iraqi law while fully safeguarding the personal identification information of our employees.” The company’s contract with the Defense Department, first awarded in 2006, is worth an estimated $4.6 billion.

According to Ebner, GLS site managers in Iraq have been instructed to tell Iraqi employees not to fear new company compliance changes. He attributed employee fears to the sensitivity of the issue. “In some cases, our site managers are speaking into the wind to individuals who are very concerned by this,” Ebner said.

Some GLS employees say that they’ve heard GLS denials but can’t afford to credit them. A promise not to disclose identifying information “may work with a friend or some other things but it will never work on this case,” said one interpreter. “We heard that the action was halted until further negotiations are reached,” said Garrison. “Absolutely, I fear for my and my family’s safety. The Iraqi ministries still have elements who can use this information to blackmail or threaten linguists or their families with. I have seen interpreters killed and displaced because their places of residence were identified by militants.”

A different interpreter emailed that he only worked for GLS because of their guarantees of employee confidentiality for a dangerous job. Now, that interpreter said, it is “just [a] matter of time” before insurgents are able to discover interpreter identities. “Iraq is no longer [a] safe place for us,” the interpreter said.

Another interpreter said that his site manager actually told him a different story. “GLS told me that they have to give my information to the [Iraqi government] because of the SOFA agreement,” the interpreter said. “I told the [project] manager in my unit that I’m willing to pay the taxes — 20 percent of my pay — but I don’t want them to give my identity information to the [government], but unfortunately the interpreters’ manager in my unit said ‘I’m afraid it is not a choice this issue is high high enough, the unit can not discuss this.’”

It is unclear what provisions of the Status of Forces Agreement mandate the additional legal compliance. While several portions of the accord suggest that Iraq has new authority to enforce its laws against U.S. security contractors like Blackwater or DynCorp — which is GLS’ parent company — none explicitly discusses Iraqi governmental power over Iraqi employees of U.S. companies. Ebner would not point to specific portions of the SOFA that prompted the recent negotiations between GLS and the Iraqi government.

For its part, the U.S. military said that the SOFA did not require companies to turn over Iraqi employee identification. “The Security Agreement does not, however, mandate any such disclosure with regards to U.S. contractors,” said Lt. John Brimley, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Iraq. Brimley said that the military was not a party to negotiations between the Iraqi government and GLS.

Neither Ebner nor Brimley anticipated a linguist exodus because of the interpreters’ fears. “We cannot absolutely predict the future, of course, but no, based on what we have seen to-date, we do not anticipate significant loss of employees,” Ebner said. “We are confident we will continue to meet the linguist and interpretation needs of our military units in Iraq.” Brimley added, “The salaries of these positions are competitive with today’s market and thus we do not
anticipate any shortfalls.”

But some interpreters said they were already taking steps to leave Iraq. One interpreter, who said he lives with several colleagues, said in an email that he and his friends were preparing their paperwork and their passport information to flee the country. “We feel [we] got betrayed by GLS,” the interpreter said. “We are not going to continue working for GLS and absolutely we’re not staying in Iraq, we have to leave soon.”

He continued, “We all know the potential of getting killed if we stayed in Iraq, we all read history and know what we are talking about here. We never attempted [to] flee Iraq before, because most of us spend all their [lives] here! But not any more.”

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Comments

36 Comments

Wonk Room » WonkLine: February 2, 2009
Pingback posted February 2, 2009 @ 10:21 am

[...] Ackerman reports on the fears of Iraqi translators that new rules for foreign contractors could result in their identities being revealed, leading to [...]


Matthew Yglesias » The Lives of Translators
Pingback posted February 2, 2009 @ 11:12 am

[...] Ackerman reports, in a great piece, on the dangers linguists in Iraq might face under the Status of Forces Agreement: Several weeks [...]


Jaff Sassani
Comment posted February 2, 2009 @ 11:27 am

Honorable President Obama: The US Government

Honorable Staffan de Mistura: The UN Representative in Iraq

Honorable International Community: The People and the Countries in the World

From: The “Jaff Sassani Organizations” in Iraq and Iran

We are the “Jaff People organizations” representing one forth of the Kurdish populations’ in Northern Iraq in the KRG area. We are appealing to the President of the USA, UN and international communities to rescue us form the internal wars of Iraq.
Since the creations of Iraq as an independent country we Kurds are facing unjust rule by the Arab rulers from Baghdad Government. That unjust practiced produced the Arab-Kurds conflicts until now. After the suppressions of the Kurdish revolt from 1921-1958 we lived in Iraq without any laws protecting our right. The Iraqi King family used Kurdish tribal leaders and Kurdish mercenaries’ to control our people. The Kurds was part of the Iraqi revolt against the borrowed King from Saudi Arabia and the establishment of the Republic of Iraq. In 1958 Iraqi constitutions’ we are recognized as the equal partner of Iraqi Arabs to run the Government of Iraq by laws.
The Arab rulers of Iraq start denying our right after 1958 revaluations which lead to our people’s revolt against the Republic of Iraq in 1961. Since 1961 we have been in state of the war with the Arab’s ruler in Iraq.
The unjust practice by the Arab rulers in Baghdad produced Barzani and Talabani family for our poor people; they are ruling us much brutal than the Arab ruler of Baghdad.
Barzani and Talabani always will find excuses to start the wars with the Arabs or each other to keep our people in state of war so they can rule us by the iron fist.
In the article by the UN representative in Iraq Mr. Staffan de Mistura are very clear and hopeful news for our people to have free elections and rule of law finally.
“The second challenge relates to the growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds. These tensions, based on historical, Baathist and more recent injustices in the swath of “disputed territories” to the south of Iraqi Kurdistan, especially the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, have infected almost every aspect of the political scene. They have impeded progress on the vital oil law, revenue-sharing and constitutional review; they brought the armed forces of the central government and the Kurdish region to the brink of conflict a few months ago; and they provoke the mutual distrust and unhelpful rhetoric that appears to paralyze governance at many levels.
Iraq's friends in the international community must encourage the national (and largely Arab) Iraqi and regional (Kurdish) leaderships to ratchet down tensions and explore new solutions for some of the most pressing issues: the oil law, Kirkuk, local security forces and the constitution. On a positive note, there is a growing desire among the various Kirkuki ethnic groups to reach a compromise that would be acceptable to the other communities living in Kirkuk, not just to their own. When I visited Kirkuk last month, this was the message I picked up from almost everyone I met.
The third challenge is the need for a greater willingness to seek national reconciliation at all levels and among all major groups: Sunni-Shiite, Shiite-Shiite, Sunni-Sunni, Arab-Kurd and Kurd-Kurd. As the United Nations works to promote the spirit of dialogue and reconciliation here, our staff has noted that “compromise” in Iraqi Arabic is often mistakenly translated as “tanazul,” which has the connotation of “giving up on your principles.” Given this mind-set, it's hardly surprising that identifying outcomes acceptable to all can be difficult.
Fortunately, during the past few months, there have been several issues, including the elections law and matters in the disputed areas, where tense political standoffs were ended when an impartial outsider presented a proposal that all sides could agree on as a face-saving win. A growing Iraqi willingness to forego the perfect solution for any one party is a positive sign. We must build on this recognition that compromise is the only way to proceed in a nascent democratic system, especially one with such profound wounds.”
We are calling on the Iraqi Government, the US Government and the UN to do this for our people so we can have chance to live like human being:
1- We want security in KRG regions to run free in elections against the unjust ruler of Barzani and Talabani mafia type Government. One note they are the people who did steal billions of dollars from our budget money. They are building private secret services, armies and police forces to kill any one challenging them peacefully. We do need Iraqi Army to protect us first from the mafia rulers otherwise we do not have chance to run in the elections against them most likely we will be killed before the elections.
2- The true representatives of our people are not looking for wars with the Arab ruler of Baghdad. We like to live in peace in our regions without the supervisions of the Arab rulers of Baghdad. We want to stop the Barzani and Talabani family wars against the Baghdad Government for good and establish lawful relationship with the central Government based on the UN judgments.
3- We are calling on the UN and the US Government to use historical document for establishing the boundaries between us the Kurds and Arabs. We used to be living in south Baghdad before Islamic Arab Imperialists conquered our Sassanid Empire. Since then we are getting pushed farther north and father north every time the Arab imperialist has power to do so. We are divided nations like cow. We do need protections by the international communities otherwise we are 40 million people will end up in Europe as refugee.
4- The Kurdish problem are indeed are very similar to the Jewish problem in the Middle East. We believe that the Kurdish people will go back to Kurdistan in the future; even if they are pushed out by the Arabs and Turkish Imperialists now to form much stronger nations than Israel. We are survivor. We survived many Empires and we will survive unjust rulers like Barzani, Talabani, Arab rulers of Iraq and Syria and Turkish Imperialists of Turkey.
5- In conclusions we are for peace and justice by law for people.


TPile » Blog Archive » Tax Form Could Doom Iraq’s Interpreters
Pingback posted February 2, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

[...] now, as Iraq finally seems to be gelling into a more stable country, these interpreters are facing a new threat, Spencer Ackerman writes: a simple tax document. Form D/4a from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance [...]


charles
Comment posted February 2, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

with leadership like this, it will be a long long war, or ,the enemy wins.


Coleman Barks, Ambassador for Allah « eXchanges blog
Pingback posted February 3, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

[...] that the cultural stuff isn’t where my primary interest in translation lies. (Of course, as this grim article by Spencer Ackerman reminds us, sometimes the cultural stuff is all there is.) In any case, an [...]


lisa
Comment posted February 4, 2009 @ 1:15 am

It sucks to be a Kurd, and that is not changing anytime soon


lisa
Comment posted February 4, 2009 @ 1:18 am

Oh, I meant to add that the only thing that Arabs, Persians, and Turks agree on is that Kurdistan cannot and will not be independent. But I like your optimism.


The Washington Independent » Iraqi Translators Fear Retribution
Pingback posted February 4, 2009 @ 11:17 am

[...] I told the [project] manager in my unit that I’m willing to pay the taxes –20 percent of my pay — but I don’t want them to give my identity information to the [government], but unfortunately the interpreters’ manager in my unit said …Continue Reading… [...]


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The quote “We feel [we] got betrayed by GLS” in this post is right on. Interpreters that have put their lives on the line for 7+ years and have served with excellent records are now being given a written language test without any advance notice. Pass = stay employed…Fail = Terminated.
Don't know how someone can sleep at night knowing they fired an Iraqi over a 12 question test that has not only put their own life at risk but that of their family. Excellent business practices GLS. Oh wait, with a contract worth over 4 billion dollars and a secure country, why would you be concerned with winning hearts and minds. It's all about the money. Patriots…I think not. Perhaps your CEO should read a manual on COIN.


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