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The debt we owe Iraqi interpreters

After the foolish mask ban, more protection is a must.

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The Iraqi pointed at me, pointed at his watch, and mimed an explosion. He'd been shouting frantically since he arrived at our small forward operating base minutes before, but like most American soldiers, I didn't speak Arabic. Had he come to warn us or to threaten us? Car bomb? Another mortar attack? When and where? Looking around desperately, I spotted a young woman in her early 20s bounding toward us. Wissam, one of our Iraqi interpreters, had arrived. After a brief conversation with the man, she turned back to me and said, "He says there is an IED [improvised explosive device] on the main road to Haswa. Good thing you have me around, I think."

For a platoon leader on the streets of Iraq, a trusted interpreter can be the difference between a successful patrol and a body bag. At great personal risk, interpreters bridge the language gap, guide soldiers and marines through unfamiliar streets, serve as cultural advisers, and make crucial introductions. American strategy in Iraq hinges on building positive relationships between US forces and Iraqi communities, a task that would be impossible without dependable interpreters.

Unfortunately, the same US military that depends on them has needlessly placed Iraqi interpreters and their families in jeopardy. For the past several months, commanders in Baghdad enforced an ill-considered policy prohibiting Iraqi interpreters from wearing masks to conceal their identities while on patrol.

Although the policy was just rescinded, thanks to a public outcry and the efforts of Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, much of the damage and confusion it caused remains. The military must now prove that it is still a partner Iraqis can trust.

Interpreters have good reason to hide their faces. Terrorists and insurgent groups devote enormous time and effort to identifying and killing the Iraqis who work with Americans. They've slain some 300 so far, according to the Checkpoint One Foundation. Many, if not most, interpreters lead double lives, unable to tell their closest friends or even their families about their work.


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