Published January 30, 2009
Iraqi translators who serve U.S. forces are worrying that their lives will be in jeopardy if their names and personal information are turned over to the Iraqi government, as required by the recently-enacted Status of Forces Agreement.
Keeping translators safe has been an important concern since the start of the Iraq War, as many have been attacked or killed for "collaborating" with the United States. Until last year, translators wore masks during missions to hide their identities.
Now, a Feb. 1 deadline looms for the translators' names and personal information to be handed over to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, for tax collection purposes.
Translators interviewed by FOXNews.com said this could be a "death sentence," because their identities could easily fall into the hands of terrorists angered by the support they have given to the U.S. military.
Global Linguist Solutions, which employs between 6,000 and 7,000 local Iraqi translators, says it hasn't turned over any information to the Iraqi government, and it doesn't intend to.
"Translators' personal identifiers absolutely will not be turned over," said Douglas Ebner, media relations director for DynCorp International, the majority owner of GLS. He stressed that his company is still negotiating tax issues with the Iraqi government, but he was emphatic that no personal information would be submitted to the Ministry of Finance.
The company's goal, he said, is to ensure that the Iraq government receives all income and Social Security taxes owed to it without handing over the translators' personal information.
"We certainly understand the security issues at stake here," Ebner said.
On Dec. 31, a GLS official in Baghdad sent an e-mail saying that the possibility of translators' personal information being given to the Iraqi government was "a horrible development" and added, "I fear for everyone who completes this document and turns it in to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance."
Though the e-mail said GLS would not hand over "employees' personal information without written consent," translators told FOXNews.com that they were rattled by the overall tone of the message. Further unsettling is that a month has passed, and they feel they still have not been guaranteed that their identities will remain a secret.
Ebner said he was "not familiar" with with the Dec. 31 e-mail, and thus had no comment.
One translator, Jasim, said in an interview that he and his colleagues feel that their lives are in danger.
"Every translator knows of at least one other translator who has been tortured and killed," he said.
Jasim said he has already lost a family member because of his work on behalf of the U.S. His stepbrother was captured in the fall of 2007, he said, and was tortured to death in an effort to get to him. (A former State Department official, who asked to remain anonymous because of ongoing government contracts, said that kidnapping of relatives is the most pervasive problem for translators.)
"We work so hard to get the bad guys, to capture terrorists, and now, because of a political deal, they're putting our lives at risk," Jasim said. "I'm wanted by Al Qaeda, Sunni and Shiite militias, and there's a price on my head. And they want me to hand over my address?"
Translators aren't the only ones who are upset. Several soldiers expressed outrage that this issue wasn't addressed in the Status of Forces Agreement.
"Our translators risk their lives to help us," said Elisabeth Keene, a U.S. Army specialist who serves in a combat unit. "Handing over their information to a new government would create a ready-made hit list if terrorists got a hold of it."
Keene said that of the six translators assigned to her unit, one has already quit, and the other five have stated that they will quit before they hand over their personal information to the Iraqi government. One of those five is Jasim.
The translators are worried that they will face an unbearable choice if GLS is unsuccessful in its negotiations with the Iraqi government: quit working with U.S. forces and possibly lose out on obtaining a special visa for Iraqi translators, or continue to work despite the greater likelihood of being identified and killed.
The special visas are a particular frustration for many translators. Some receive their visas quickly, while others have had to wait up to two years. A translator named Donna summed up her frustration by asking, "Is the American government going to help us like we have helped their army here?"
To U.S. soldiers in Iraq, many translators have done much more than just "help." Some are even seen as heroes.
"Jasim has saved the lives of everyone in our unit several times over," said Keene. "I owe him my life."