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Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Monday, 17 December 2007

Basra: The Legacy

By Jane Corbin

In a café in Damascus, in Syria, I met two nervous men clutching a bundle of documents and shielding their faces with sunglasses.

Jane Corbin visits Little Iraq in Syria
Panorama: Basra - The Legacy, Monday 17 December 8.30pm BBC One

They were Iraqi exiles from Basra and their work for the British army there had forced them to flee the city earlier this year.

Over a cup of English breakfast tea the men - I shall call them Amir and Latif, showed me their certificates of commendation from the cream of British regiments which had employed them as interpreters.

Death squads

Shia militias and especially the all-powerful Madhi Army have targeted the thousands of interpreters who have worked for the British government in southern Iraq over the past four years and nine months as 'collaborators'.

Many have become victims of torture and death squads.

Every interpreter I spoke to was deeply concerned about what would happen to them and their families at the hands of the militias when UK forces finally left Iraq
The British authorities confirmed to Panorama that at least forty Iraqis who worked for their military, civilian and police training missions had been killed as a result of their association with the British.

But the Institute of Translation and Interpreting told us that at least 50 more interpreters may have been murdered.

The two interpreters in Syria described why they had to flee for their lives.

"Three guys with machine guns attacked me inside my house", Latif told me "and of course they knew I was an interpreter.

"They stole everything but I begged them to leave my family alone.

"They said - we're going to take your son...imagine the terror of that!'"

Latif had worked for the British for three years and it was only because the militia heard that soldiers were in the area and ran out of his house that Latif's son was saved.

Jane Corbin meets police chief Jalil
The new Iraqi police chief of Basra, Major General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf tells Jane Corbin he is determined to restore law and order despite almost daily assassination attempts.
"We feel the British forces are responsible for our lives," said Amir, whose father had insisted he leave before the militias put a bullet in his heart.

"We need asylum anywhere but we hope it could be Britain."

Denmark, another country once in the coalition, has given asylum to all its interpreters.

After a public outcry the UK has now promised to let some settle in Britain.

But the requirements are very restrictive and to register many interpreters have to get to UK embassies outside Iraq.

Moral obligation

I tackled the Commander of British forces in Basra about the fate of those who had worked for the UK government.

"As the government has indicated we are discharging our moral obligation to the people that have supported us over the last four years," said Major General Graham Binns.

But privately, senior military figures have confirmed to me they are angry with the Government's response.

To date not a single interpreter has been offered re-settlement in the UK.

And reports suggest that more than 100 have so far been rejected for not meeting the criteria.

The British owe me a lot - a safe refuge - all I want is a peaceful life for my family and a decent future
Iraqi interpreter
While I was on the British airbase outside Basra several times serving interpreters currently employed by the British approached me to tell of their fears and of the deaths of former colleagues.

Many live on the airbase all the time - the risk facing them and their families is too high for them to drive through the streets of Basra these days.

Others who have not been able to seek refuge in surroundings countries have moved to different parts of Iraq.

Asylum application

Every interpreter I spoke to was deeply concerned about what would happen to them and their families at the hands of the militias when UK forces finally left Iraq.

British troops withdrawing from Basra Palace
British troops are now based at Basra Airport following the handover

Back in Damascus Amir is disappointed and fearful. He has just learnt that his asylum application has been turned down.

He only worked for the British for seven months, not the 12 months demanded.

His money and visa are running out but if he returns to Basra he risks being murdered.

"Gordon Brown said he would help the interpreters but how can he make a distinction between someone who worked for the British for three months or three years?"

Amir told me "the militias don't see it like that. They will assassinate all the interpreters even if they only worked for the British for a month."

As I stood up to leave the two men, Latif begged me to bring his case to the attention of the UK authorities.

"The British owe me a lot - a safe refuge," he said, his voice breaking "all I want is a peaceful life for my family and a decent future".

Panorama: Basra - The Legacy, Monday 17 December 8.30pm BBC One.

Transcript: Basra - The Legacy
19 Dec 07 |  Panorama
Bringing Our Boys Home?
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
Saddam on the run
09 Mar 04 |  Panorama
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26 Mar 04 |  Panorama


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