In Iraq, Iran-backed militias imperil U.S. military’s contract translators

Laveta Brigham

The U.S. military provides this personal information to the Iraqi security forces, as required by Iraqi authorities, to secure permission for the translators to move around Iraq, according to documents and Iraqi military officials. But Iran-backed militias have so permeated parts of Iraq’s security apparatus that the information has, in […]

The U.S. military provides this personal information to the Iraqi security forces, as required by Iraqi authorities, to secure permission for the translators to move around Iraq, according to documents and Iraqi military officials. But Iran-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 Americans and their local support staff, Iraqi officials say.

“It’s not a surprise that militias have these documents,” said an official in Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s office. He added, “They believe it’s going to be a long battle, so they will gather as much leverage over U.S. interests as possible.”

In June, a list purporting to contain personal information about Iraqis admitted to the Union III military base in Baghdad, the main headquarters of the U.S.-led military coalition, was published by the Sabreen news agency, which is affiliated with Iran-backed militias. The list included the names, addresses and identification numbers of Iraqi drivers and the make, model, year and license plate numbers of their cars, among other specifics, and the document bore logos of the U.S.-led military coalition and the U.S. Defense Department. The Washington Post could not independently verify the authenticity of the list.

Separately, two Iraqi translators said they witnessed militiamen who were stationed near an Iraqi military checkpoint check a list containing personal information that had been acquired from a military coordination center run by the Iraqi security forces.

“When we realized where the information had come from, we were shocked. The list contains everything. Phone numbers, ID numbers, even our real names,” said one translator from Baghdad. The Post reviewed a copy of the list and confirmed this description.

“It’d be an easy mission to hunt us down,” the translator said. “They have all the information now. What if this list now goes online?” This man, like seven other translators interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

In response to a request for comment, a U.S. military spokesman said the U.S.-led coalition does not share personally identifiable information about the translators with the Iraqi military or government.

But three documents obtained by The Post show that such information provided by the U.S.-led coalition has been circulated by various elements of the Iraqi security forces over the past year. The documents, all issued by the national operations center under Iraq’s prime minister, say the information was obtained from the U.S.-led coalition and then shared with Iraqi security forces, including at three military camps in Baghdad; the special division for the Green Zone in central Baghdad; and the military intelligence directorate. In one case, the document includes personal information for 143 of the employees.

A senior Iraqi military officer said the U.S. military shared the information so the translators could travel outside military bases.

When the U.S. military spokesman was asked about the documents showing that the U.S.-provided information had been given to various Iraqi security forces, he had no additional comment.

The translators, who have been employed by Valiant Integrated Services, a Virginia-based contractor, represent one of the largest groups of Iraqis who have worked closely with the U.S.-led coalition. Many have served on front lines with U.S. and other coalition troops, sleeping in the same foxholes and camping out in abandoned buildings as fighting raged around them.

The threat facing the translators has grown more intense in recent months. Many have been laid off as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces from the country, leaving the former contract workers unemployed and potentially unprotected.

The translator from Baghdad, now out of work, has been renting temporary accommodations with two former colleagues to hide out. But money is running out. “We are literally eating our savings buying food here,” he said. “We’ll be empty-handed by the end of the year.”

Under its contract with the U.S. military, Valiant hires translators, formally known as linguists, for work in Iraq, Syria and other places. The company has shared little information publicly about its work and employees, citing contract restrictions.

Militia access to the personal information of Valiant’s employees could exacerbate a threat long felt by Iraqi support staff, who in some cases already fear they have been identified by militiamen monitoring checkpoints and military bases.

“We have interpreters right now who call me to say they have been threatened when they visit the bazaar or even just when they leave their homes,” said an Iraqi translator who coordinates a network of former support staff. “Some people have been told: ‘We can’t touch U.S. citizens here, but we can touch you.’ ”

This translator, who lives in the northern city of Kirkuk, recalled a recent evening when he was leaving a busy cafe. A man he didn’t recognize approached from behind and tapped his shoulder firmly. “I turned around and he looked at me directly. He told me I had to leave this city,” recounted the translator.

In response to a request for comment, the U.S. military declined to say whether it had taken any steps to protect the personal information of Iraqi translators and address the threats they now face as a result of this information being accessible to Iran-backed groups.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said he had contacted Valiant and that the company had responded that “it does not share information that puts the safety for their warfighters or teammates in jeopardy.” The spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto, said Valiant should be contacted for any further information.

When contacted, Valiant did not provide further formal comment. But a person familiar with the issue said Valiant’s policy is to notify the appropriate military unit if a current or former employee reports a threat, which the person said has occurred “a few times a year.” The person added: “This is a priority. The military takes it from there.”

When the U.S. military was contacted again and asked how it handles these threats once it has been notified, the spokesman provided no further comment.

Although Iran-backed militias participated in the U.S.-supported campaign to oust the Islamic State’s caliphate, these armed groups have recently been escalating their attacks on American interests in Iraq, especially after the U.S. killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.

Militias in Iraq have described the translators as traitors. Iraqis driving equipment and logistics convoys on behalf of the U.S.-led coalition have been targeted. There have been at least 30 rocket or improvised explosive attacks on the convoys since the summer, according to figures compiled by Joel Wing, an Iraq expert and author of the Musings on Iraq blog, which chronicles security and political developments. At least two people have been killed and another eight have been wounded.

Marotto, the coalition spokesman, referred questions about attacks on convoy drivers to the Iraqi military, because the drivers are employed by companies contracted by Iraq’s security forces.

The Trump administration’s plans to draw down most of the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq have come amid escalating militia assaults against the convoys and other U.S. interests, including repeated rocket attacks on bases hosting American forces.

Between March and August, hundreds of Iraqi personnel working in support of the U.S. mission received emails saying their contracts had ended due to a loss of funding, stoking fears that they would be even more vulnerable to revenge attacks once the Americans depart.

Those who have been working remotely due to the coronavirus outbreak were told not to return to their bases. Those still working at military installations alongside U.S. soldiers said they were informed that their departure would be “coordinated” in short order.

The U.S.-led coalition has been stationed in Iraq to fight the Islamic State since 2014. In September, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said that the troop reduction — from around 5,200 to 3,000 — reflects the administration’s confidence that Iraqi security forces can handle the remaining threat from Islamic State militants in the country.

While employed, the translators could report threats they received, and for the most part, they say, their complaints were taken seriously by the U.S. military. Some men were offered a safe place to stay on a military base. Others said their superiors made it clear that they had their backs.

“I knew the risks when I signed on, but I also knew that the United States had told us that no matter the threat, they would stand by us,” said another translator from Kirkuk.

During four years of service, he said, he had worked with the U.S. Navy SEALs and the Montana Army National Guard and had most recently been helping train Iraqi forces at two centers in northern Iraq.

When he received his termination notice, he got goose bumps. “I knew then that it isn’t a matter of asking whether something will happen to us. It’s a matter of asking when,” he said.

Another translator, who said he had worked with the Navy SEALs on the front lines against the Islamic State, said he had not believed a colleague who called to say their contracts had ended. “He told me to check my Gmail, so I did the thing where you drag the screen down to refresh. I really didn’t think anything would show up. When it did, we were all freaking out.”

In late October, a little-known militia named Ashab al-Kahf addressed the translators 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 said.

A former translator 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 has been making it more difficult for people who fear war or other dangers in their home countries to move to the United States. The White House 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. The U.S. government also set aside 4,000 spots for Iraqis last year but only 161 were resettled, IRAP said.

Meanwhile, the United States 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 translators 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.

One of the translators who had worked with the Navy SEALs said he had been “honored” to do so. “I’m so proud of all the days I’ve been working with the greatest forces in the world,” he said. “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 translators submitted a letter late last month to the U.S. Consulate there that they said was on behalf of around 400 people who had been hired by Valiant. “We are sure that you are well aware of the situation and the difficulties we face every day. For that, we are asking you kindly to reactivate [the visa] program that used to be provided for Linguists such us just a few years ago,” the letter read.

Hostile militias, it said, are “capable and willing” to hunt down translators who have supported the departing U.S. forces. “The situation for us is a matter of When rather than If.”

Ryan reported from Washington.

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