BAGHDAD — As the Iraqi government pushes for more control over the tens of thousands of American contractors still in the country, some high-level U.S. interpreters say new visa regulations are pushing them to leave.
The interpreters, Arab-Americans who work in sensitive areas such as intelligence or as liaisons between senior American officers and Iraqi officials, worry that submitting the details of their identities to the Iraqi government could endanger themselves or family members living in Iraq or elsewhere in the region.
“Working for four years doing intel, pretty much I know how corrupt things are,” said one former Iraqi-American interpreter who quit her job and returned to the U.S. last month after her company notified employees they would need to apply for a visa. Like other interpreters interviewed for this story, she spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Along with many other U.S. contractors, most interpreters travel to Iraq via military flight from an air base in Kuwait to one of several air bases in Iraq. Unlike at the commercial airport in Baghdad, there are no visa checks at the bases. But Douglas Ebner, a spokesman for DynCorp International, said the company was recently told its employees would need visas anyway.
“We have been informed by Iraqi government authorities that contractors, including interpreters, who use military transportation hubs to enter Iraq, as well as those individuals already in-country, must apply for the appropriate visa,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “We take very seriously our corporate obligation to comply with applicable local laws.”
It’s not clear how or whether the Iraqi government will enforce that requirement.
Qusai al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said contractors entering via U.S. military bases have been required to apply for visas for more than a year, though that has never been enforced.
Still, the change could affect thousands of the nearly 100,000 U.S. contractors who remain in Iraq. And it comes amid continuing attempts by the Iraqi government to clamp down on those contractors — especially ones involved in security.
Angry over a U.S. judge’s dismissal of criminal charges against five security contractors accused in the September 2007 shooting deaths of 17 people in Baghdad, Iraqi officials in February ordered any contractors who ever worked for the former Blackwater Worldwide out of the country and threatened to arrest on visa violations any who failed to leave — an apparent acknowledgement that many contractors arrive without a visa.
The day after that threat was issued, a site manager for Global Linguist Solutions sent interpreters an e-mail telling them a visa was “now required to enter and exit Iraq” and asking them to submit personal information including their father’s name and their country of birth.
Global Linguist Solutions, a subsidiary of DynCorp and McNeil Technologies, was awarded a five-year, $4.6 billion contract in 2007 to provide translation services to the military in Iraq, including up to 1,000 Arabic-speaking U.S. citizens with security clearances.
And some of those interpreters say information like their father’s name and their birthplace — though standard lines on a visa application in the Arab world — would make their families easy to find.
“I was involved in a lot of things that weren’t pretty,” said one interpreter still in Baghdad, who said he wasn’t sure whether he would comply with the visa regulation. “I put a lot of people behind bars. So of course I’m worried about it.”
Interpreters have been given the option to quit their jobs and leave Iraq if they don’t want to submit the information. But that has left some feeling like they’re being cast aside. Some also say interpreters should have been given protections under the Status of Forces Agreement, and complain that the military has shown little interest in standing up for them now.
“We’re always being told how we’re essential to the mission and we are, because if not for us, nobody can understand each other,” said another interpreter in Baghdad. “We are proud Americans and we want to see this through, but now we feel like we’re being abandoned. It’s just, ‘Do this or get out.’”
This is not the first time interpreters’ identities have become a sensitive issue. Locally hired Iraqi interpreters long wore bandanas over their faces while on patrol with U.S. troops and resisted occasional attempts to have them unmask, which the military saw as a signal of a return to normalcy. Iraqi interpreters also complained about attempts by the Iraqi government to make them pay taxes — hardly ever paid by anyone in Iraq — which required them to declare their employer.
The interpreters hired from the U.S. essentially represent the top-level translators in the country, and few ever wore bandanas. But they still worry.
“I support the mission very much, but if it comes to putting myself or my family in danger then I have to draw the line and quit,” said the former translator. “We were hired by the U.S. Army, so I don’t see why we have to deal with the corrupt Iraqi government.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.