It's one of the most dangerous civilian jobs in one of the world's most dangerous countries: translating Arabic for the U.S. military in Iraq.
One by one, little noticed in the daily mayhem, dozens of interpreters have been killed - mostly Iraqis but 12 Americans, too. They account for 40 percent of the 300-plus death claims filed by private contractors with the U.S. Labor Department.
Riding in bomb-blasted Humvees, tagging along on foot patrols in Fallujah or dashing into buildings behind Marines, translators are dying on the job, but also facing danger at home: hunted by insurgents who call them pro-American collaborators.
"If the insurgents catch us, they will cut off our heads because the imams say we are spies," said Mustafa Fahmi, 24, an Iraqi interpreter with Titan Corp., the biggest employer of linguists in Iraq. "I've been threatened like fifteen times, but I won't quit. A neighbor saw me driving and said, 'I am going to kill you.'"
That fate befell Luqman Mohammed Kurdi Hussein, a Titan linguist and Iraqi Kurd captured by insurgents in October. A video of the 41-year-old's beheading was posted on the Internet.
Another Titan employee, Sudanese interpreter Noureddin Zakaria, was luckier. He appeared as a hostage on an Oct. 30 broadcast by Al-Arabiya television, saying he had been captured in Ramadi. His kidnappers later released him.
In a more recent attack in Baghdad in late March, two carloads of insurgents gunned down five Iraqi women traveling home in a car from their jobs on a U.S. base. All were killed, the Iraqi police reported, and at least one of them was a translator.
The efficiency with which insurgents hunted down Titan contractors worries the U.S. military. As militants killed them in growing numbers, usually in ambushes off base, the Army and others began housing Titan workers on military bases or in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.
"There was a period when it seemed translators were being targeted on a daily basis," said First Sgt. Stephen Valley, a U.S. Army reservist who worked with Arab journalists in Baghdad. "There was virtually no way to protect these people."
Most Titan linguists now live on U.S. bases.
More than 4,000 translators work for San Diego, Calif.-based Titan, which supplies the U.S. military with Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking linguists. In April, Titan reported a 23 percent increase in revenues, or $559 million, a company record. Titan said its contract with the U.S. Army is its biggest revenue source, worth up to $657 million by the time it expires.
The human cost has been high. The U.S. Labor Department reports 126 death benefit claims for Titan workers in Iraq out of a total 305 for contractors as of mid-May. The Titan death toll includes 12 Americans, and possibly some non-translators, the company said, with another 149 wounded.
"This is a war zone. Our people are embedded with literally every military unit in Iraq, facing the same life-threatening dangers as our U.S. combat forces," Titan spokesman Wil Williams said. "We have lost more personnel than any other American contractor covered by (U.S. government) insurance because of our unique, critical and dangerous mission, and because of the intensity of the insurgents who seek to discourage Iraqis from serving their country."
Titan's toll - which includes both violent deaths and accidents - is far higher than any of the hundreds of civilian contracting firms in Iraq, including those with many more workers.
For example, Halliburton, the Houston-based contractor with 50,000 employees spread between Iraq and Kuwait, has had more than 60 employees and subcontractors killed in the war zone, more than 250 wounded and one worker unaccounted for, spokeswoman Jennifer Dellinger said.
Many deaths don't show up in the Labor Department statistics under the name Halliburton because often claims are filed under subcontractor names. The 305 death claims with the Labor Department represent only part of the toll for American and other civilian contractors in Iraq. The true figure is difficult to estimate because many firms don't publicize workers' slayings. The U.S. troop death toll is over 1,620.
In Iraq, translators are seen as a critical link between U.S. troops and Iraqis.
"They were important to our mission, and terrorists were trying to hurt us by hurting them," said Army Capt. Joseph Ludvigson, who was based last year in northern Iraq.
On Baghdad's hostile western outskirts, the Army has conducted memorial ceremonies for slain Titan interpreters, said 1st Cavalry Division Maj. Derik Von Recum.
The first, an Iraqi woman, was killed in July, "shot execution-style at her home in front of her family," Von Recum said. The second, an Iraqi man, stopped coming to work in November. It took a few days to figure out insurgents had kidnapped and killed him, Von Recum said.
"The two we lost were like family to us," he said. "I wish we could have provided them with better protection."
But some Iraqis working for Titan said they spent months on the job before being issued helmets, body armor, and ear- and eye-protection given to U.S. troops and foreign contractors.
Titan's Williams said Iraqi workers now get the same Kevlar helmets and vests issued to U.S. troops. "Following some initial equipment shortages, our Iraqi personnel now have the equipment they need where and when they need it," he told The Associated Press.
One Titan interpreter said he completed more than 100 missions without body armor and a helmet. The man spoke on condition his name wasn't used because he didn't want to lose his job.
This reporter, who spent more than a year in Iraq, accompanied Iraqi interpreters who wore no body armor or helmets on many U.S. military missions.
"You look around and see the soldiers and the international press with you, and they're all wearing the proper protection. What about me? I'm one of the team," said the Titan interpreter, who emerged uninjured from two convoys blasted by roadside bombs.
The interpreter said he asked his U.S. Army commander why the troops and the American civilians - some also in Titan's employ - had body armor and helmets, but not the Iraqis.
"After a while they decided it was wrong. They gave it to us," he said.
A Titan translator with no military background said U.S. troops allow him to carry an AK-47, after having taught him to shoot it. The 31-year-old Iraqi said he opened fire on insurgents when his convoy came under attack near Baghdad in March 2004. He was slightly wounded.
"I saw an American soldier killed right in front of me," said the translator, who didn't want his name used because he feared for his life. "The insurgents were shooting at us from the rooftops. I was trying to shoot them too. The soldiers yelled at me: 'Hey, don't try to be a hero. Get down!'"
He said he has survived three ambushes, but a co-worker with Titan was killed by a mortar round on a U.S. base in Baghdad.
As bad as the on-the-job hazards are the dangers commuting to work.
The Titan translator who had to ask for body armor said he alters his route, schedule and the cars he takes to the U.S. base where he works. He never stays more than a few nights in one house. And he wears a black ski mask to hide his identity while on patrol.
"I stay with neighbors, sometimes with my family, with my wife's family, my uncle, my parents," he said. "If anyone recognizes you, and says, 'Hey, I saw you with the soldiers,' that's when you're done."
Another Titan contractor, who didn't want his name published for fear of retribution, keeps a pistol in his lap when he drives.
"I don't talk about my job," he said. "If you keep your mouth shut, no one is going to know who you are or what your job is."
Money is the chief reward. The interpreters say monthly salaries start at $600 and range as high as more than $1,000 for those who take the most dangerous missions. That pay is big by Iraqi standards, where many survive on less than $100 a month.
Under those salaries, U.S. government death benefits for families of slain Iraqi translators would range from $300 to $700 a month, according to a formula in the Defense Base Act, which sets a maximum payout of less than $4,190 a month.
Valley said he was amazed Iraqis would show up to replace a translator who'd been killed.
"They were putting their lives on the line for what seemed to me a ridiculously small amount of money, but to them it was the highest salary they had ever earned," Valley said.
Valley said his office helped negotiate a new salary scale that made their translators "some of the best paid Iraqi civilian workers in the country."
"If we couldn't protect them from the insurgents, we could get them a higher monthly salary," he said.
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