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A Translator's Tale

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
August 9th, 2006

Goran Habbeb had just left his house to get into his car with his brother and his seven year old daughter, Soleen, when the armed men opened fire. Taken by surprise because the men were dressed in police uniforms, he just managed to get the white Toyota Previa van into motion and escape.

Habbeb was planning to drop his daughter off to school before going to work at a U.S. Army base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. He worked as a "linguist" for Titan, a San Diego-based military contractor employing thousands of translators across Iraq under a multi-billion dollar contract.

Habbeb's relief lasted only a few minutes. He dropped his brother off  and then the nightmare began. Two cars pulled alongside him and opened fire again, he pulled out his pistol and fired back while trying to push his daughter out of the direct line of fire. She received three bullets and he took seven, including one that damaged his spine.

"I felt something in my back and I fell down," he told CorpWatch. Perhaps taking him for dead, the gunmen sped away. Local people helped Habbeb get to first to the Azady hospital and then his father called the military base which arranged for him to be airlifted to the U.S. military's largest base - Camp Anaconda in Balad. The military doctors told him that they did not have any medicine for children, he said, so his daughter went to the local hospital and then to an Italian hospital in the nearby city of Sulamanya.

It was mid-November 2004 and Habbeb had been working for Titan for well over a year doing stints with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 64th Military Police Company and the 21st Infantry, among others. Soldiers in these battalions have confirmed his story as have other contractors who worked with him in Kirkuk.

Poor Planning


Many of Habbeb's fellow Titan employees have fared far worse. A a total of 199 Titan translators have been killed in Iraq and another 491 have been injured, according to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the highest of any company in Iraq.

Intelligence Contracting

Read the full series on intelligence contracting:

Private Contractors and Torture at Abu Ghraib, May 7th, 2004

Titan's Translators in Trouble, May 7th, 2004

Prison Interrogation for Profit, September 15th, 2004

Intelligence, Inc., March 7th, 2005

An Interrogator Speaks Out, March 7th, 2005

Meet the New Interrogators: Lockheed Martin, November 4th, 2005

Border for Sale: Privatizing Immigration Control, July 5th, 2006

Intelligence in Iraq: L-3 Supplies Spy Support, August 9th, 2006

A Translator's Tale, August 9th, 2006
 

Rick Kiernan, a spokesman for L-3 Communications, says that their employees face the highest risks: They're "with the combatants; they're with the special forces; they're with the infantry units. That probably puts them out in the most dangerous places," he said. He told Knight Ridder newspapers that two thirds of those killed before the end of last year were murdered because they collaborated with Americans.

A San Diego Union-Tribune reporter puts the blame for the high death rate on both the company and the government: "Employees of Titan and other corporations have become part of an experiment in government contracting run largely by trial and error." The newspaper quoted Rick Inghram, who was Titan's highest-ranking executive in Iraq for most of 2004, acknowledging that their Iraq contract was "a working experiment."

"I never had that kind of training," said Inghram. "In 31 years in the Marine Corps, nobody ever sat me down and gave me a class on contracting on the battlefield. Ever."

Combat Role


That was the case for Habbeb. Officially, he was a civilian translator, but the job often encompassed military functions. For example, he was sometimes sent alone into villages to look for insurgents and to covertly record GPS locations to provide to the troops--a task normally reserved for counter-intelligence officers.

"We have to find the terrorists and sometimes go with the troops to identify them," he said. If he did not accompany the troops, the American soldiers often raided the wrong houses, he added. Sometimes he would get caught in a firefight and have to fire back, another task not covered by his job description.

His active role in gathering intelligence and combat was probably one of the reasons Habbeb was targeted. "I heard the terrorists saying on television that they killed Goran Habbeb because he was a collaborator, but they don't know that I am still alive because the doctors said they couldn't save me," he said.

Other Titan employees have confirmed that troops have occasionally asked them to assist in combat roles. Drew Halldorson, a Titan site manager, was asked to accompany the 82nd Airborne Division in patrolling downtown Mosul, one of Iraq's more dangerous cities.

In January 2005 he says he took part in more than 40 combat missions, kicking in doors, rounding up suspected insurgents, and "shooting and being shot at," he told the San Diego Union Tribune. "In January alone I fired between 300 to 500 bullets in self-defense," Halldorson told the newspaper, which confirmed the story with an 82nd Airborne company commander.

Some Titan translators have been mistakenly trapped by the blunders made by the U.S. soldiers they were accompanying.

Tunjay Celik and Savas Dalkilic, two Turkish translators who also worked for the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Kirkuk, had to flee the region after the American troops they were accompanying mistakenly jailed 11 Turkish special forces. When a Turkish colonel realized that the translators were his countrymen, they were told that serving as translators was illegal and they would be "severely punished" when they returned to Turkey.

Today, Celik and Dalkilic, who have been granted political asylum in the U.S., are seeking damages of at least $1 million each from Titan for failing to protect them on the job.

Meanwhile both Halldorson and Habbeb have lost their jobs. Halldorson was fired for selling assault rifles and handguns to fellow contractors and other civilians in Iraq and returned to Maryland. Habbeb remains in Kirkuk, where the 33 year-old suffers from severe back pain from his spinal injuries.

Hospital Woes


American Insurance Group (AIG), the company that provided insurance for Titan employees, refused to pay for Habbeb to get medically advised treatment in Germany. They also refused to pay for Soleen, saying that she was not covered by the insurance.

"Other translators who were injured went to Germany and to America," said Habbeb. He is also bitter because American translators, many of whom were born in Iraq, were also paid as much as ten times more than the locals for less work.

"We got paid $750 a month to work with the troops and up to $1,000 if we went on missions outside the city, but they were paid $7,000 to stay at the base and translate documents," he said.

The company has not completely abandoned Habbeb. AIG paid for him to go to Jordan three times for treatment, he says, but the doctors took advantage of him. "The first time they kept my weekly allowance, but when I found out I was supposed to get money, I demanded that they give me better treatment," he said. Habbeb was also disappointed that his $300 weekly allowance didn't meet the cost of his daughter's treatment.

Alico, the company that represents AIG in Jordan, is now offering Habbeb a cash settlement but he would prefer to have his job back. "Now, I am not able to do any work and I am at the house all the time. But I am not safe yet because the terrorists might be behind me at any moment," he said. The insurance company representatives in Jordan did not respond to requests for comments.

Still, he was relatively lucky. A month before Habbeb's shooting, the Army of Ansar Al-Sunna posted a video on the internet of the execution of Luqman Mohammed Kurdi Hussein, a 41-year old Titan translator from the nearby city of Dohuk.

Others have returned home with debilitating injuries. Mazin al Nashi, an Iraqi American from San Diego who was caught in a "friendly-fire" incident returned home blind with strokelike symptoms on the right side of his body. Nashi says he experiences pain in his neck so severe that he cannot stand up straight for any length of time or sleep through the night. He also says that the company Titan has not fully paid him the compensation that he believes he is owed under the law.

Titan has since been bought up by New York-based L-3 Communications, and is now the lead contender for a new contract to supply 5,000 translators to the military in Iraq. The U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command estimates the deal will be worth $4.65 billion. The applications deadline is August 14.

Pratap Chatterjee is managing editor of CorpWatch. He can be reached at "pratap@corpwatch.org"