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Arabic-English translators caught in crossfire in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An unemployed Iraqi doctor stopped an American on a street corner to show off his Hollywood-sounding English, an innocuous encounter until the conversation turned to why the Arab isn't working as a translator in Baghdad's booming marketplace.

"I'll be condemned and stigmatized in my neighborhood," said Dr. Laheeb, looking worried and offering only his first name. "The translators are being assassinated and shot. I'm still cautious about pleasing the Yankees."

Pleasing the Yankees is indeed a dicey proposition in this country. Insurgents are forcing out foreigners with suicide bombings and drive-by shootings.

Linguists are caught in the crossfire, as they ease everything from U.S. patrols and construction projects to the barrage of news reports that stream from Iraq each day.

Many have been unheralded casualties of the shadowy year-old war. The latest was an Iraqi translator for Time Magazine, who was shot and critically wounded when gunmen ambushed him as he drove to work Wednesday. Another Iraqi interpreter, working with the U.S. Army, was killed Sunday when someone triggered a remote-control bomb, then opened up with automatic gunfire on an Army patrol. An American soldier also was killed.

Since the U.S-led invasion, uncounted numbers of translators have been menaced with anonymous death threats and maimed in drive-by shootings and by roadside bombs. Some have had to flee their homes and seek haven with the Americans or switch neighborhoods.

At least 25 Iraqi translators have been killed. They include Alya Sousa, 54, an Iraqi interpreter who perished along with U.N. special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 20 others in August's car bombing of U.N. headquarters; Voice of America linguist Selwan al Niemi, 28, who died in a hail of bullets along with his mother and 5-year-old daughter when gunmen ambushed his car in Baghdad on March 5; and Selwa Ourmashe, who was working for an American women's rights advocate when she was killed with her boss and another civilian Pentagon contractor in a March 9 ambush.

"People are being painted as targets because they are working for the coalition," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy commander for coalition military operations in Baghdad. He called the killings "just a ruse used by terrorists and former regime members to intimidate people who are working for a new Iraq."

Translation is key to Iraq's opening to the West and a coveted skill once fiercely controlled and monitored, like so many other facets of life, during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Back then it seemed to visiting correspondents that almost no one here spoke English when they encountered an American. It was safer to play dumb.

But university-educated Iraqis had routinely studied English and honed their skills secretly in late-night Western movie and TV marathons during the lonely last years of the regime. So when the Americans arrived, entrepreneurial English-speaking Iraqis seemed to appear out of nowhere at foreigners' hotels, trading their linguistic and cultural expertise for coveted dollars.

Soldiers use them to sort the good guys from the bad in streets that can alternate between ferocious and friendly. Contractors use them to negotiate a share of mostly U.S.-controlled reconstruction contracts and to direct laborers in coalition rebuilding projects. Western journalists use them to make sense of the mayhem at suicide attacks, to monitor Arabic news reports and to arrange and interpret interviews.

Today's translators include political science professors with doctorates, former Baath Party members, former Information Ministry escorts and recent college graduates. A cardiologist accompanied a British news reporter around the city, for $50 a day. Hundreds of Iraqis stream daily into the so-called Green Zone, the sprawling sandbagged compound for the American-led occupation to translate documents, interpret at meetings and join troops on raids and routine patrols.

There's no official estimate of how many interpreters are on the coalition's payroll, or how many have perished.

Wil Williams, a spokesman for Titan, a California-based Defense Department contractor and major provider of Iraqi language specialists, says the topic is too touchy, citing the "security and the safety of linguists."

Nor would he confirm Iraqi accounts that Titan scouts recently raised monthly salaries from $250 to $350 as the job of being a translator grew more dangerous.

The U.S.-led coalition, which keeps meticulous count of U.S. military casualties, doesn't track how many Iraqi translators have been maimed or killed by roadside bombs, shootings or military accidents. But a review of coalition and news reports found 14 were killed while working with the coalition, none of them named, and six more were killed while working for contractors.

Five other translators have died while in the employ of Western news organizations—including CNN, the BBC and Boston Globe—in a mixed bag of drive-by shootings, a coalition air assault and an automobile accident.

Many others have been grappling with threats as they help journalists dig below Iraqi society's Byzantine surface. Some news organizations, which asked not to be identified, have had to relocate at least three Iraqi interpreters from their homes to protect them.

"The safety of our local staff has become an increasingly important concern," said Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who runs one of the largest foreign news offices in Baghdad. He conceded that he devotes significant time to "precautions for Iraqi nationals."

The American military, too, has had to shelter an undisclosed number of contract linguists to keep them safe—and working—after anonymous death threats. Dozens of translators have left their Baghdad neighborhoods for former Republican Guard apartments inside the Green Zone—a virtual bilingual barracks.

In Baghdad, long simmering with suspicion and jealousy, translators have emerged as a special subculture in the gold-rush atmosphere that arrived with the American-led occupation.

Interpreters make $350 to $600 a month from coalition contracts, while freelancers vie for up to $100 a day acting as guides and interpreters to journalists and think tanks trying to sort out the mood of the street. Those salaries were once unimaginable in this nation, where regime-era schoolteachers earned $30 a month in dinars and today average $120.

"They killed some Iraqis working for the coalition because they were translators. Some of them got warnings and quit, and some were unfortunate to be in the wrong place, near a car bomb," said Ali, 42, an Iraqi army colonel who was stationed at an ammunition depot until the day Baghdad fell, April 9.

A month later, he stood in line at coalition headquarters to take an English test, showing off the skill he perfected during an 18-month course at Britain's Royal Military Academy in the 1980s.

Now, he spends his days translating senior coalition officials' documents and speeches, earning $650 a month.

It's a year later, but he still keeps his job a secret from his neighbors.

Enemies of the U.S.-led invasion have branded the translators as "collaborators," he explained, an ugly slur in the Middle East. But he backs the U.S.-led occupation and uses the money to support his mother and two sisters.

Besides, he hopes to work at the U.S. Embassy when it opens this summer—translating both the Iraqis' words and their ways for the Americans.

"I deeply believe they are trying to make this a modern country here," he said of his American employers. "I want to help the coalition understand the Iraqi culture, so the message can get through the right way."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.