Civilian Translators in Iraq Thrust Into Combat Roles

Goran Habbeb had just left his house to get into his car with his brother and his 7-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 at school before going to work at a U.S. Army base in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. An Iraqi national, 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 said in an interview.

Perhaps taking him for dead, the gunmen sped away. Local people helped Habbeb get 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.

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

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 the U.S.

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."

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 counterintelligence 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 U.S. 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 took part in more than 40 combat missions, he says, 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.

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

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 U.S. translators, many of whom were born in Iraq, were paid as much as 10 times more than the locals for less work.

"We got paid 750 dollars a month to work with the troops and up to 1,000 dollars if we went on missions outside the city, but they were paid 7,000 dollars 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-dollar 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.

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 Aug. 14.

Read more by Pratap Chatterjee