Page last updated at 08:03 GMT, Saturday, 6 December 2008

Iraq translators' mask ban dropped

Unidentified Iraqi interpreter in file image from January 2006
Interpreters provide vital local knowledge, as well as language skills.

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Baghdad

The Pentagon has rescinded a controversial decision that banned Iraqi interpreters working for US troops in Baghdad from protecting their identities by wearing ski-masks.

The ban was meant to reflect the improved security situation - in which interpreters were no longer afraid of retaliation. But that is not the case.

"If anyone of my neighbours see me with this uniform I will get killed," said an interpreter working with the US 4-10 Cavalry Regiment, which patrols a large part of western Baghdad.

"Maybe they will kill my family. That's the issue", he added.

About 30 interpreters work with the 300 troops from a large camp that used to be a luxury shopping mall.

To be a successful linguist you have to act when you translate, to make the other side understand if they are serious or not serious

Zeeman, an Iraqi translator

Another interpreter, who only wanted to be known as Zeeman, said he had worked for too many years against too many different militia to feel safe.

"I am married and I have a family and we have to remember that these forces are leaving one day and we are staying here."

He explained further: "If these people here see the same faces as they see with the Americans and American is not here…?" The question was left hanging, with no doubt as to his fear.

Some 300 interpreters have been killed during the war in Iraq, and they are seen as a crucial link between the US forces and Iraqi communities trying to recover from the years of violence.

"It would have been tough to get where we are today without our interpreters," said the regiment commander, Colonel Monty Willoughby.

"We know that they get spooked and scared, and we try to protect their identity as much as possible."

'At grave risk'

Out on patrol with Zeeman, we called first at a local Iraqi police station where he translated an intelligence briefing.

We then headed to a empty building lot nearby where it was thought weapons might be hidden.

He apologised to the residents as our Humvees blocked the street and during the search - that yielded nothing - he liaised between the police and the US soldiers.

Finally, he introduced the patrol commander to Iraqi soldiers manning traffic checkpoints.

"To be a successful linguist you have to act when you translate - act exactly what's going on - to make the other side understand if they are sad, if they are happy, if they are serious or not serious."

US officials at first tried to defend the Pentagon ruling, saying interpreters could seek alternative employment if they were unhappy with it.

An Iraqi interpreter in Ramadi
Interpreting through interrogation in Ramadi, Iraq

But the issue was taken up by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. He sent a Congressional petition to the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

"Preventing interpreters from concealing their identities puts their lives, as well as the lives of their families at grave risk," said the petition letter.

It went on: "The heightened threat could also reduce the numbers of interpreters available in Iraq, due to death and resignations, and put American service members and their missions in danger."

Col Willoughby said the mask ban had now been lifted and that decisions could be made at an operational level.

"We ask them not to wear masks," he said. "But troop commanders can make that determination."

Zeeman does not give his real name and does not want his face filmed.

He has worked without a mask for some time, realising that it helps the hearts and minds campaign. "But the decision needs to be in my hands, not in the hands of someone in Washington who knows nothing about how we work."

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