Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Coalition Translators Face Public's Wrath

People who work for the Coalition find themselves disliked and often under threat of death.
By Omar Anwar

Ahmed Jelal, a translator for the Coalition Provisional Authority, says he checks to make sure that none of his neighbours are around when he goes to work each morning, lest any of them greet him and ask him where he’s headed.


Only his immediate family knows where he’s going. When he comes home, he says, they breathe a sigh of relief.


“Every time there’s an explosion, my mother’s fear increases because she imagines that I’m there,” he said. But, he added, "I need to work to help my family. Otherwise I’ll just stay here and do nothing.”


Jelal’s English, which he learned at Baghdad University and honed by reading newspapers, has earned him what some might consider a highly coveted job as a translator.


In a country with an unemployment rate which the CPA estimates at 60 per cent, translators can make 15 US dollars a day, or about four times the salary of a typical civil servant.


The wages are even higher in anti-Coalition hotspots like the Sunni towns north and west of Baghdad.


But the job exacts a price as anti-Coalition militants target translators.


In the most recent attacks, a translator for the US military was shot dead in her car on March 16 in the northern city of Mosul.


Translators also have to endure the hostility of some of their colleagues and neighbours.


"Cowards," said mason Mohammed al-Jaburi, who says that he refused to work with a local construction contractor on a CPA project. "These people only want money."


Sami al-Doori, a professor at Baghdad University, calls people who work with the occupiers traitors. “Working with the occupation makes you a part of it, by serving it and prolonging its duration," he said.


Ali al-Asadi, himself a translator working for an Iraqi company, says he has no problem with his colleagues working for a foreign company or media outlet.


But being employed by the military, he said, is a different issue, “I feel contempt for any translator sitting in a US military patrol.”


Others, however, take a more tolerant line.


"Working with the Americans is acceptable," said Talib al-Mosawi, imam of a west Baghdad Shia mosque. "Informants, spies, or those who help to arrest Iraqis - those are the collaborators.”


Although Jassem has continued his work, some of his colleagues have quit.


Basem Qasem, a translator with US troops in the eastern Iraqi town of Baaquba, left his job after a death threat was thrown onto his driveway. ”I am lucky to have a letter…” he said.


But others - like one young man manning a US checkpoint in Baghdad – are proud of their work, and claim not to worry about the danger.


”I have no fear at all,” the young man says. “Even my neighbours and relatives know that I work with the Americans. I’m not hurting anyone.”


The translator, who was not allowed to give his name, says he tries to help other Iraqis get jobs, and otherwise deal with the Coalition authorities.


“I’m helping Iraqis to understand,” he said.


Omar Anwar is an IWPR trainee.


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