By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 13, 2009
BAGHDAD, Feb. 13 -- Iraqi interpreters working with the U.S. military in Baghdad are again allowed to hide their identity during certain missions, after a Pentagon decision to grant battalion commanders the discretion to disregard an earlier policy banning interpreters from wearing masks.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed the reversal last month in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). But several interpreters and American soldiers in Baghdad said they were unaware that battalion commanders can waive the mask ban for "high-risk" missions.
"It's clear that the situation in Iraq is so fluid that it would be nearly impossible to make that kind of judgment with certainty," Wyden said in a statement, referring to the flexibility the new policy gives commanders. "That's a big chance to take with the lives of people who are risking their lives to help our troops and our country."
After the military instituted the mask ban in September, some officers said the new policy reflected an overly optimistic assessment of the security situation. Violence in Iraq has dropped markedly in recent months, but bombings and assassinations continue to occur daily. On Thursday, five people were killed in an explosion near a revered mosque in Karbala, south of Baghdad.
Battalion commanders, who oversee between 500 and 800 soldiers, cannot delegate the lifting of the ban to junior officers. Wyden, as well as soldiers and interpreters, said they remain concerned that any restrictions preventing interpreters from shielding their identities put them at risk.
Some American soldiers, who often refer to interpreters as "terps," say they enforce the ban laxly or not at all.
"Telling a terp that his country is safe when he doesn't feel it's safe is as pretentious as it gets," said an Army captain in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was criticizing his superiors. "The terp-mask thing is just the latest disconnect between what happens on the ground and what people want to be happening on the ground. We're in full-on dress rehearsal now. I think we're in such a hurry to get out of here, we're wanting this place to be safer than it really is."
Kirk Johnson, the director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, an organization that helps Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, said the new policy does not protect interpreters.
"If you're an Iraqi interpreter working alongside our soldiers, there's no such thing as a high-risk mission," he said. "Every mission is high risk. I don't comprehend how people who are not on the front lines are pushing a policy that doesn't seem to resonate with anyone who is indeed on the front lines."
In a Jan. 7 letter to Wyden, Mullen said the mask ban was put in place in an effort to foster trust between American soldiers and Iraqis in Baghdad.
"Given the improved security environment, concealment of identities engenders a perception of mistrust among some elements of the population," Mullen wrote.
Mullen added that the military is not aware of recent incidents in which interpreters were targeted after their identities became known. More than 300 interpreters working with U.S. troops have been killed since 2003, and some have been tortured by extremists who see them as traitors.
The Baghdad command stands alone in forcing its interpreters to work without disguises. The other three field commands in Iraq allow interpreters to wear masks when they are working in areas in which they fear being recognized. The U.S. Embassy routinely blurs the faces of Iraqis when it posts photos of events on its Web site.
Interpreters and American soldiers say that interpreters who grew up in the areas where they work have been valuable in collecting intelligence and alerting soldiers about threats and extremists.
U.S. soldiers and interpreters noted that in some districts of the capital, Iraqi army and National Police officials wear masks when they conduct joint missions with Americans.
"The NP cover their faces," an Iraqi interpreter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was instructed not to talk to reporters about the ban. "They don't want people outside to see them working with the Americans. They worry about their lives."
Interpreters and some U.S. soldiers say the National Police -- which was deeply infiltrated by Shiite militias in 2007 -- remains infiltrated by militiamen, albeit to a lesser extent than it once was.
"We see the truth for what it is," said the interpreter, who works in a southern Baghdad neighborhood. "All the terps want to quit. But if we quit, we can't find work."
During recent joint patrols, he said, as National Police and U.S. soldiers searched houses, the way National Police officials operated in Sunni homes compared with Shiite homes struck him as unfair.
In Shiite households, he said he repeatedly overheard Iraqi policemen discreetly tell residents: "Say that you don't have weapons." The same officers meticulously searched Sunni homes and seized weapons.
In November, the interpreter said, shortly after the mask ban was put in place, armed men sprayed his house with bullets.
"Bad people in my neighborhood," the 24-year-old interpreter explained. "They know who I am, who I work for."
He stopped returning to his neighborhood after the shooting and now stays with an uncle when he's not living at a military outpost.
Interpreters say the mask ban has prompted many to apply for the Special Immigrant Visa program created by the U.S. government in 2008 to help interpreters working with the U.S. military obtain permanent residency in the United States.
In November, a Washington Post story about the mask ban triggered a congressional inquiry led by Wyden and 12 other lawmakers. Two associations of linguists sent letters to the Pentagon expressing their concern and urging the military to rescind the policy. Military officials in Baghdad did not respond to repeated inquiries at the time about whether the policy was under review.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said late last year that he supported the judgment of division commanders who instituted the policy.
Speaking privately, U.S. military officials said they couldn't discuss the issue because the policy had become classified. But in a Jan. 22 letter in response to questions raised by Wyden's staff, the military said the policy and subsequent revision had been "incorrectly marked" as classified.
A spokesman for Global Linguist Solutions, a Falls Church-based company that provides interpreters to the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the new policy is reasonable.
The Iraqi government in recent weeks told GLS, a subsidiary of DynCorp International, that it intends to collect income tax from interpreters working with the U.S. military in Iraq. GLS's linguist contract is worth $4.6 billion.
GLS spokesman Douglas Ebner said the company will withhold between 12 and 20 percent of the wages, but will not provide the Iraqi government with the names of its employees. Iraq does not collect income taxes from government employees, which triggered suspicion among interpreters that the move was meant to learn their identities.
"We understand the sensitivity and concern on the part of local national interpreters that this information not be passed out," Ebner said.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.