It's 100 degrees F. Khalid Ahmed jostles in the back of a US armored vehicle on a combat mission, tightens his flak vest, and pulls on a thick black ski mask. Covering his eyes with wrap-around sunglasses, he obscures the last clues to his Iraqi identity.
It's a mask Mr. Ahmed hates intensely, although he knows it could save his life. As an interpreter for a US Army colonel, he faces constant danger on and off the job. In Mosul alone, at least four of his colleagues - including his predecessor - have been assassinated for working with American forces.
Like many of the hundreds of Iraqi interpreters serving the US military, Ahmed leads an anguished life. Hounded by taunts and the threat of death from fellow Iraqis, he is also troubled by the abuses and mistrust of some US soldiers. But his job is as crucial as it is wrenching, especially as US and Iraqi forces increasingly mount joint combat operations to shore up Iraq's new government.
"Sometimes, when I'm alone, I cry," says Ahmed, an English literature graduate of Mosul University. "It's so contradictory because I'm proud of what I'm doing, but I hide my face," he says, withholding his real name. Since he cast his lot with US forces in the first days of their occupation of Mosul in April 2003, Ahmed has faced the extremes of Iraqi popular attitudes toward the American military. Initial euphoria has given way to a grim daily effort to survive, he says.
"Every time I leave the FOB [forward operating base] I'm thinking someone is following me and will try to shoot me," he says in a dim meeting room of the Army base, an old Baath Party headquarters on the banks of the Tigris River. To keep a lower profile, he rules out buying a car, even though for the first time he can afford one. Instead, he hires taxis, concocting a new story for drivers each day about why he's going to the base.
When the war began in March 2003, Ahmed was selling slippers and belts at a roadside stand in Mosul. The stocky, energetic university graduate longed to test his English ability, but lacked the family connections necessary to get a better job under the Saddam Hussein regime.
"In Iraq, we were 'waiting for Godot,' " he says. "So the Americans were Godot."
When Hussein fell and US Marines occupied Mosul, Ahmed got his chance. "My brother came over and said he saw one of my friends riding in a Humvee. I couldn't believe it." Within days, he was hired by the Marines, initially making his family proud. "My mom and dad told everyone their son was an interpreter for the Americans," he says.
Working for the Marines and later the 101st Airborne Division and Stryker brigade, Ahmed was impressed by much of what he learned about American culture. In managing propane distribution, for example, he discovered US soldiers were highly egalitarian.
"Before the war, we had important people and not-important people. But the soldiers were fair to everyone," he says. "I learned a lot from those guys. I learned that you judge each individual by what he does" rather than by his family, tribe, or group, he says.
Still, he says the US occupation also brought chaos because Iraqis lack a sense of ownership for their country. "Saddam psychologically and physically damaged people's patriotic feeling for the country, to the point that it wasn't their country, it was Saddam's country and they lived in it," he says. Just as stuffing oneself after a Ramadan fast can cause a stomachache, he says, "you can't give us all that freedom at once or we will hurt ourselves and behave abnormally and randomly."
Yet Ahmed has also seen ugly sides of the US military. On a handful of raids when 101st soldiers beat Iraqis without justification, he objected and refused to interpret. Earlier this year, when news broke of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Ahmed and the other interpreters with his Stryker unit threatened to resign en masse.
"When I saw that on TV, I was very upset. All the interpreters were angry," he says, especially over images that play into Iraqi stereotypes of Americans as infidels corrupted by alcohol and pornography. "So I went to the Sergeant Major and said I will give you 30 minutes to apologize or we are leaving," he said. That won an immediate apology, along with a pledge from the military that no such abuses were happening in Mosul. Ahmed stayed.
Today, Ahmed plays an increasingly critical role as an interpreter during US-Iraqi military actions.
"I'm calling you the commander today," Lt. Col. Gordie Flowers of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd infantry Regiment told Ahmed as an operation kicked off earlier this summer. Indeed, virtually all the vital communications between Iraqi and US commanders that day passed through Ahmed and were shaped by his insights.
"I translate emotions, not only words," he says, shuttling between Iraqi officers and smoothing out their conflicts during a large search of a Mosul neighborhood.
Speaking excellent English, peppered with soldiers' vulgarities, Ahmed appears to earn every bit of his $450 monthly wage. Yet his mask betrays his job's huge cost. "I thank God for every moment of my life," he says, adding, "I hope the US military will take care of their good interpreters."