U.S. Ban on Masks Upsets Iraqi Interpreters

An Iraqi interpreter for the Army wears a ski mask in front of a detainee. About 300 interpreters have been slain since 2003, a former U.S. official says.
An Iraqi interpreter for the Army wears a ski mask in front of a detainee. About 300 interpreters have been slain since 2003, a former U.S. official says. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 17, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military has barred Iraqi interpreters working with American troops in Baghdad from wearing ski masks to disguise themselves, prompting some to resign and others to bare their faces even though they fear it could get them killed.

Many interpreters employed by the U.S. government and Western companies in Iraq do everything they can to avoid being recognized on the job because extremists have tortured and killed Iraqis accused of collaborating with the enemy.

"The terps are the number one wanted here," said A.J., a 36-year-old military interpreter, using the shorthand for his profession. "More than the Americans. More than anyone."

The interpreters have come to symbolize the bravery of Iraqis who have aided the American project in Iraq. About 300 U.S. military interpreters have been killed since 2003, said Kirk W. Johnson, a former official in Iraq with the U.S. Agency for International Development who has fought to make it easier for interpreters and other Iraqis to come to the United States.

With security having improved in recent months, the U.S. military has begun to close neighborhood outposts and take down a few blast walls, slowly disassembling the capital's wartime architecture to restore a sense of normalcy.

Many Iraqis, however, fear the relative calm won't last long. To them, ordering interpreters to work without masks suggests that some top U.S. officials are taking an unrealistically rosy view of the security situation in Baghdad, which remains a dangerous city.

U.S. military officials said they began to enforce the mask ban in September because security in Baghdad has improved dramatically.

"We are a professional Army and professional units don't conceal their identity by wearing masks," Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for the U.S. military, wrote in an e-mail. He expressed appreciation for the service and sacrifice of the interpreters but said those dissatisfied with the new policy "can seek alternative employment."

During years of active combat and widespread violence, interpreters have helped U.S. soldiers make sense of Iraq's streets, politics and history. These guides have been killed by snipers on foot patrols, blasted to shreds in roadside bombings and vilified by extremists as traitors.

Since U.S. troops deployed to small outposts last year, interpreters have played a critical role in helping American soldiers promote reconciliation, counter the influence of extremists and ensure public safety.

"The decline in violence in the past year and a half cannot be disputed," said Johnson, who founded the List Project, an advocacy group for Iraqis who have worked for the American government. "But to think somehow that the lethal stigma faced by our Iraqi allies has suddenly worn off is folly."

Despite the improved security, a growing number of Iraqis have contacted Johnson's group in recent months, many expressing concern about the mask ban. "We have hundreds of Iraqis writing to us in desperation and fear, most of whom fled because their affiliation became known," Johnson said.

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