Iraqi translators live in terror as the west withdraws
“Jim” has spent 17 years close to danger. An Iraqi interpreter for a rotating cast of British and American troops and security companies, his work in deadly conflicts has earned him commemorative pins, recommendation letters and distinctly English vowels.
A new threat makes the 44-year-old weep with fear for his family — and ask that even the Anglicised version of his name be disguised. Jim and other Iraqi interpreters live in terror of the Iran-backed Shia militias who are baying to avenge Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian general, and his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were both assassinated in Baghdad in January.
Cycles of violence have made life for Iraqis abhorrently hazardous since the US-led invasion of 2003. Soleimani’s assassination brought fresh chaos for the translators with Ashab al-Kahf, a relatively new Shia militia formation, making a veiled threat against them last month.
The statement, circulated on clandestine social media channels, encouraged former interpreters to absolve past offences by collaborating with paramilitaries. Between the lines, the message was: “If you don’t co-operate with us, it means you are our enemy and we will kill you”, says Jim.
Until March, Jim worked with a British regiment training Iraqi soldiers, along with two other translators who spoke to me, Hassan and Wa’el (names also changed). Their work has exposed them to information valuable to anti-western forces. A year ago, strangers approached Hassan’s son and asked questions about his dad’s job — Hassan fled across Baghdad with his family that night. Wa’el, who once turned down a US visa out of optimism for Iraq’s future, has rigged his home with CCTV.
The interpreters have little official protection. Weak Iraqi security forces cannot prevent high-profile murders such as that of government counter-terrorism adviser Hisham al-Hashemi. Hashemi, who was a source for foreign journalists, had long warned that some Shia militias were bent on capturing the Iraqi state. As the new government under intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi signalled resolve to tame the militias, Hashemi’s death was meant to project their power.
The translators once worked with the western forces who helped combat the Sunni jihadist Isis. Now that brutal caliphate is over, the anti-Isis coalition is shrinking — which is partly why many interpreters have lost their jobs.
Today the Tehran-linked militias, which became embedded after British and American armies ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, threaten Iraq’s fragile existence. Hussein had persecuted Shia Muslims and pursued an eight-year war with Iran. With him gone, majority Shia Tehran used Iraqi Shia militia allies, directed by Soleimani, to secure influence. The January assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis was cheered by some as a victory for American interests. But in the short-term, it has been pyrrhic. Washington has threatened to quit its Baghdad embassy.
“I realised the Americans, when they came to Iraq, they made Iran stronger,” says Wa’el. But as the US again draws down, “we’ll still be here. We’ll be an easy target.”
Wa’el and his fellow translators fear the militias have their personal details. The Washington Post reports that a list identifying Iraqis who contracted with American forces has been shared with Hashd forces, which includes Shia militants. The interpreters are now in hiding. “Like you drink a glass of water, they could kill us just as easily,” says Hassan.
Hassan hopes to migrate to the UK, which has a long and tangled history with Iraq. After the first world war, British diplomats hungry for oil drew Iraq into being as a nation as European powers carved up the former Ottoman Empire. After Iraqis revolted against British rule in 1920, London installed a monarch, Hashemite King Faisal. Wa’el’s father was bodyguard to the last king of Iraq, Faisal II.
Despite the historical ties, the interpreters have little idea of how to get a British visa. A resettlement scheme they might have used closed in 2010. Even with credible threats against your life, you can only seek asylum from a country you’re already in. Unluckily for Iraqis, they have one of the world’s least-useful passports.