Thousands of Iraqi translators who worked for American troops live in fear

Iraqi translators who worked for now-departed American troops live in fear, writes Sarah Mustafa in Baghdad

Many Iraqis are celebrating the withdrawal these days of American troops after eight years of the Iraq War. But for me and tens of thousands of others who worked with U.S. forces, this is a very frightening time. We’ve lost our source of livelihood and we face regular death threats. In the new spasm of violence that has shaken my country since the Americans left just last week, there’s already a hint of the score-settling that we so fear.

I started working for the U.S. Army as an interpreter in 2006, when the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites had surged to dreadful heights. I am Sunni, and Shiite militia members blew up our house, displacing us from our neighborhood and leaving my husband without a job. I had been a housewife and mother for 17 years. To feed my family, I had to leave my children behind and move to an American army base.

The first few days were miserable. I missed my boys and felt out of place. But I quickly came to admire the commander I worked for. Alpha Company 177 became my second family. I patrolled with members of the unit along some of Baghdad’s most dangerous streets, translating for the soldiers. I also served as an interpreter in the interrogation of top militia leaders. The commander learned to trust me and depend on me. In time, he had me regularly calling informants in our area to try and get information from them about militia leaders – which I did with much success. The commander took me aside one day and told me that we had managed to arrest 80 top militia leaders thanks in part to my good work. After several months on the base, I was awarded a Vanguard pin. When our battalion commander fixed it on my chest in the presence of other officers, he said my work had been invaluable. I felt great pride.

But there was a terrible cost for the work I did. In early 2008, Shiite militiamen gunned down my husband in a drive-by shooting. I heard from an informant later that it was a revenge attack designed to punish me for working with the Americans. The informant said he saw the assailants bragging and celebrating. From that point on, I resolved to leave Iraq with my boys and obtain asylum in the United States. But three years after the shooting, I’m still here in Iraq, still waiting for American authorities to approve my application.

My story is not unique. In fact, in some ways I’m lucky. At least 1,000 Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the U.S. have been assassinated over the years. Many were tortured first and some were beheaded. Whole families have been murdered because one member of the family made a decision to work alongside U.S. troops and try to make Iraq a better place. Those of us who survive are labeled traitors and subjected to threats. Influential Shiite leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr have singled us out in aggressive speeches. Militia leaders are said to have lists of “collaborators.”

And yet, the United States has opened its doors to only a fraction of the people it relied on in Iraq. Applications languish for years.

My own circumstances are complicated by an ordeal in 2008 that continues to hang over me. In October of that year, out of nowhere, I was suddenly taken to an interrogation at a U.S. military base and accused of secretly aiding Shiite militiamen. All the accusations the American interrogator leveled at me came from an anonymous informant. An Iraqi judge eventually exonerated me but only after I spent months in detention. Even worse, while I was in prison someone stole thousands of dollars from my room at the Army base, money I’d been saving in order to leave Iraq with my sons. I had kept it there because banks in Iraq were frequently robbed.

Now I'm back with my boys, a widow with no money. I’ve had a chance to know many good Americans, including soldiers, journalists and lawyers. Some have gone to great lengths to help me get out of Iraq, and I still have hope. But with American troops gone, time is running out. I pray that God will continue protecting us.