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Iraqi interpreters seek refuge in U.S.

Mohamed Abdul Kareem's crushing culmination to three years of service as a translator and cultural adviser to U.S. troops in Iraq came on the recent day that he joined a long line of Iraqi widows and children at a refugee registration center here.

An air of defeat engulfed him despite his spotless gray Nikes and expensive Oakley sunglasses. He took his place in the somber queue, and eventually received his appointment date with a United Nations refugee specialist: Jan. 10, 2008.

That gives him seven additional months to stew in the bitterness of his abrupt transition from trusted U.S. military interpreter with a high security clearance to just another castoff of the war in Iraq, an Iraqi refugee among 1.4 million others in Syria.

"I think maybe one of the reasons (American military officers) haven't replied is because they think I betrayed them by coming here to Syria," Abdul Kareem said. "But, believe me, I had no other place to go."

His case isn't unique. In the four years since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein, hundreds of Iraqis have gone to work as interpreters - "terps" in soldiers' parlance - for an American force that has few Arabic speakers and little familiarity with local customs.

The job is risky: Many terps - there are no official figures on how many - have been hunted down and killed by Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite Muslim militias, and an unknown number have quit their jobs after receiving death threats. Eighteen, including some from Afghanistan, have been given sanctuary in the United States, according to figures compiled by the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

But dozens, some with knowledge of sensitive U.S. operations and infrastructure in Iraq, have been denied entry. No longer assets to the American war effort and shunned as traitors by their communities, they've fled to Syria, Jordan and other countries.

Like other former interpreters, Abdul Kareem's past haunts him even in the relative sanctuary of Syria. He avoids sections of Damascus where supporters of Iraqi insurgents might recognize him. He's careful with his phone conversations and laptop files, which are filled with images from his interpreter's life, for fear that Syrian authorities will learn about his old job and interrogate him to extract intelligence on U.S. operations in Iraq.

Abdul Kareem said he'd pleaded for help at the American Embassy in Amman, Jordan, but that his case was brusquely dismissed and he was forced to leave the country. He moved to Syria and began sending frantic, pleading e-mails to his friends in the U.S. military.

When his calls for help went unanswered, he said, he understood that he could rely only on himself to stay safe.

In Syria, he keeps to himself, partly out of fear that other refugees will ask about his work and partly because he's lived as an American for so long that he no longer has much in common with other Iraqis. He mostly stays indoors, watching DVDs that he bought on a U.S. military base and surfing the Internet for news of resettlement options for coalition interpreters.

He burns through phone cards checking on his parents, who are still in Baghdad. He's met a few other former "terps," and sometimes they gather in a cafe, like brothers in a secret fraternity. They compare the threatening letters that drove them to flee; Abdul Kareem's says, "You're a traitor. Move out or you will suffer as much as Iraqis suffer from the Americans."

"For interpreters, our own people become our major enemies," he said. "With the Americans, we were fighting terrorists, we were fighting intruders from other countries; and now we're fighting our own people. It's hard when the people of your own country think of you as bad, like a spy and traitor."

Abdul Kareem grew up in a respected Sunni family in a middle-class, mixed-sect neighborhood of Baghdad. Just after Saddam Hussein's regime fell, he opened a computer repair business and thrilled at all the old contraband now pouring into the country: wireless Internet, video games, cell phones and satellite dishes.

Despite the stream of new gadgets for his technology-starved customers, Abdul Kareem said, he was still making just $60 a month. A friend who'd signed up as a translator with U.S. troops bragged about his $350 paycheck and urged him to join. Abdul Kareem's English was self-taught from bootlegged American movies, but he was still so proficient that he immediately signed a contract with the Titan Group, a major supplier of interpreters to the U.S. military.

"I saw it as a career change, and also the chance to be a part of something big," he recalled.

It was summer 2004, and American troops were locked in battle with the rebellious Mahdi Army, the powerful Shiite militia led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. One of Abdul Kareem's first assignments was translating for a notoriously prickly American commander during meetings with senior Iraqi security officers.

Abdul Kareem was "shaking to the bone," he recalled, when he entered a room and found himself facing two rows of military brass, the Americans on one side and the Iraqis on the other. His boss coldly reminded him that the previous four interpreters had been fired. As he translated clearly and quickly, Abdul Kareem said, the American officer gave him a slight nod of approval. The captain had decided he could stay.

Abdul Kareem's unwieldy name was abbreviated to his initials, MAK, and he was outfitted with a camouflage uniform with an American flag patch on the sleeve. He told his parents he worked with foreigners at a computer store and confided to no one except his older brother that he was really a contract employee of the U.S. Army.

Danger trailed him in his new job. On patrol in Baghdad, the streets seemed paved with homemade bombs. Insurgent snipers fired from rooftops, while militiamen fired rocket-propelled grenades at passing U.S. convoys.

To protect his parents, Abdul Kareem said, he moved permanently on base and took circuitous routes home on the rare occasions when he visited. But the war caught up with him, delivering three harsh blows.

First, his best friend and fellow interpreter, an Iraqi known as Wolf, was killed in a roadside bombing while on patrol with American troops. Abdul Kareem was so devastated that he moved to new barracks to escape the memory of his former roommate.

His next brush with death came during a visit to his family, he said. His father was driving him to an errand when masked insurgents in a black Suburban pulled alongside their car and opened fire. Two bullets struck his father, who survived.

"I knew I was the reason," Abdul Kareem said. "His getting hit is a burden I'll carry all my life. That changed everything for me."

He fled to Jordan, where he waited two weeks for an appointment with the U.S. Embassy in Amman. He said he was humiliated from the moment a Jordanian employee at the embassy's front desk heard his story and derided interpreters as spies. He said she asked, "How can you live with yourself?"

The reception wasn't any warmer when he finally got to plead his case before a visa officer. He recalled tearfully explaining his situation to the officer and asking for special consideration in light of his service to the American military.

"She was looking at me as if from a high hill. She was typing and I thought it was a good sign, but then she said, `I'm sorry,'" Abdul Kareem recalled. "I told her, `I was helping your country, I was working with your army,' but she kept saying `sorry.' I was begging her to listen, and she finally said, `Sir, please leave or we'll have to escort you.'"

Dejected, Abdul Kareem had no choice but to return to duty at the Rustamaya base, the safest place he could live. He was just settling back into life as an interpreter when the final blow landed.

His pretty 25-year-old fiancee was killed in crossfire between the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgents as she traveled alone in a taxi from her house to his parents' place on Dec. 21, 2006. Zena, a Shiite he'd been smitten with since college, died when a stray bullet struck her in the head, Abdul Kareem said.

"After I buried her, I couldn't stand Iraq. I promised myself I would never go back to that place," he said. "I'm starting to worry about my humanity. I feel burned inside, but I can't react. I'm a stone."

After the traditional three days of mourning, a distraught Abdul Kareem fled to Syria in January. His life in Iraq was over, he said, and his last hope was to win asylum and move permanently to the United States. For the third year in a row, he's entered the U.S. green-card lottery.

"I still think Iraq will rise from all this, but I don't think it will ever be my home again," he said. "If my neighbors, the people in my tribe, knew what I did, I would be killed right away. I'm not a traitor - I'm a patriot - but my country has rejected me for working with Americans.

"And the Americans, at the end of the year, their promises went nowhere," he said, referring to the rotating units he'd worked with. "They'd give us a certificate and leave."

Sometimes, he said, the nostalgia for American life is overpowering. When he went to the Syrian-Iraqi border to renew his permit to stay in Syria, he caught sight of a U.S. Marine unit patrolling the area. He longed to shout to them in English, ask them for work, shoot the breeze. But he stood on the other side of the razor wire, among bedraggled Iraqis who glared at the Americans and cursed them in whispers.