Iraqi interpreters who worked closely with the U.S. military in their country have grown increasingly alarmed that they could be targeted for attack, fearing their personal identifying information has been obtained by Iranian-backed militias.
Iraqi authorities require the U.S. military to provide interpreters’ personal information—including names, addresses, and license plate numbers—to secure permission for the interpreters to travel around Iraq. But Iranian-backed militias have so permeated parts of Iraq’s security apparatus that the information has, in some cases, become accessible to groups that have taken up arms against the U.S. and their local support staff.
“It would be an easy mission to hunt us down,” said an interpreter from Baghdad. “They have all the information now. What if this information goes online?”
The threat facing interpreters has grown more intense in recent months. Many have been laid off as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its forces from the country, leaving the former contract workers unemployed and potentially unprotected.
Although Iranian-backed militias participated in the U.S.-supported campaign to oust the Islamic State, these armed groups have recently been escalating their attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, especially after the U.S. killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.
In late October, Ashab al-Kahf, a little-known militia group, addressed interpreters directly in a statement, suggesting that the group would be willing to “forgive” and even provide a salary to those who identified themselves as working on a U.S. military installation. “Today, we think it is beautiful to offer forgiveness to those who have insulted themselves, their religion, and their country, who have rendered services to the American, the English, and the rest of the enemies of Iraq,” the statement read.
A former interpreter in Baghdad said he saw the offer as a “trap,” adding, “Just like I predicted, the worst is yet to come.”
The mounting peril comes as the Trump administration announced in October that it would reduce the annual cap on refugee entries to a record low of 15,000. While that number allocates up to 4,000 spots for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis per year, Iraqi applicants have been processed slowly, partly because of heightened security vetting. According to the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), there is a backlog of over 100,000 Iraqi applicants.
Meanwhile, the U.S. no longer allows Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government in Iraq to apply for a Special Immigrant Visas program, which stopped accepting new applications in 2014. A parallel program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters remains open, but it is capped at 50 people per year.
“Pathways for humanitarian protection for refugees from Iraq have so narrowed that they are basically closed, ” said Sunil Varghese, IRAP’s policy director.
“I’m so proud of all the days I’ve been working with the greatest forces in the world,” said an interpreter who worked with the Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams. “But the problem is that after they are gone, their government doesn’t care about us. We are literally left behind.”
In the northern city of Irbil, a group of interpreters submitted a letter last month to the U.S. Consulate. “We are sure that you are well aware of the situation and the difficulties we face every day,” the letter stated. “For that, we are asking you kindly to reactivate [the visa] program that used to be provided for linguists just a few years ago.”
Hostile militias, the letter stated, are “capable and willing” to hunt down interpreters who have supported departing U.S. forces. “The situation for us is a matter of When rather than If.”
Read Full Article from the Washington Post (11/09/20)
Authors: Loveluck, Louisa; Ryan, Missy; Salim, Mustafa
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