Special Reports

Meet three men who speak for Idaho's soldiers in Iraq

KIRKUK, Iraq — They are the men out front of the patrols. The first men out of Humvees at traffic stops. The men standing between the soldiers and civilians.

They are interpreters, Iraqi natives who risk their lives simply by going to work. When soldiers go back to their secure bases, the interpreters go to their homes in Kirkuk. Their cooperation with coalition forces makes them targets for assassins who see them as traitors.

"They're good guys, every one of them," said Capt. Mitch Smith of Boise, commander of Bravo Company. The unit of the Idaho Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team is stationed in Kirkuk, where interpreters help soldiers with their assignment of building relationships with Iraqi citizens.

To protect their identities, the interpreters go by first names or pseudonyms. Sometimes they wear disguises. One interpreter wears a full-face knit ski mask and sunglasses when he goes out, leaving only his mouth visible.

Three of Bravo Company's Iraqi interpreters agreed to talk with the Idaho Statesman about their experiences.

Jalal is as likely to appear in a sharp, three-piece suit as in fatigues. The 50-year-old Turkman is quick with a smile, wave or handshake. With his natural charisma, he could be a salesman or politician. He charmed Bravo Company officers Sunday with an Easter feast prepared by his wife.

Out with Bravo Company, he doesn't wear armor. He doesn't cover his face. "With the Army," he said, "I feel safe."

Jalal's father was an interpreter for a British oil company. Jalal learned his English from company workers — "British English, not American English."

He was drafted into the Iraqi army, where he spent 14 years, rising to the rank of sergeant major. He was wounded twice in the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, taking bullets in his abdomen and face. He deserted two days before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

"I fought Iran with all my heart because they attacked us first," Jalal said. "But for Kuwait, there was no reason."

The penalty for desertion was hanging. But too many Iraqi solders deserted to punish them all. After the war, Jalal tried to open a shop in Kirkuk. But as a Turkman, he wasn't allowed to do so; Saddam wanted only Arabs to open new businesses.

Jalal was working in his family's rug store when U.S. and coalition forces invaded in March 2003.

"Americans came in to buy rugs, and they said 'You need to go to work for us,'" he said.

Jalal has worked for three different units at the patrol base in Kirkuk. He proudly shows the medals the 21st Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade awarded him. He estimates he's been on 600 to 700 missions, including helicopter assaults and firefights. He plans to keep doing missions — and not just for his $900 monthly salary, more than a police chief makes.

"I am not going to quit until the last American soldier leaves Iraq," he said. "One of the reasons is the money. But the coalition forces came across all those oceans to save us, so we should help them."

Yousif, 52, is more reserved than Jalal. He speaks quietly. He wears large glasses, his hat pulled low over his eyes.

He was born in Kirkuk and served with the pershmerga, highly regarded Kurdish freedom fighters that waged guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein's army.

"Sometimes we attacked the Iraqi military, sometimes they attacked us," he said.

He escaped into Iran in 1975, then immigrated to San Diego, where he owns a home and a cab company. His wife and children remain there.

"I think San Diego is the most nice city in the world," he said. "It's green and clean."

Yousif, whom the soldiers call "Joe," became a U.S. citizen in 1992. He speaks Arabic, Kurdish, English, Persian and Turkish. Air Force intelligence officers recruited him in May 2002, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"I was in the field in March 2003," he said.

He said the clean, well-educated Kirkuk of his youth no longer exists. It changed during Saddam's reign. The cities north of Kirkuk are better off, he said, because of "10 years of freedom" from Saddam during the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone of 1991.

Yousif's sisters and brothers live in Kirkuk. With Saddam out of power, he plans to split his time between California and Iraq.

Mark, at 19, is among the youngest interpreters in Iraq. He favors jeans and sweaters. He wears his sideburns long. He was born and raised in Kirkuk, but he wants to move to be near other Kurds in California or Tennessee.

He learned English watching TV and movies. He wrote letters to U.S. and European English-speakers. People sent him magazines and books. He talked to Americans whenever he could.

"It was my hobby to learn English," he said.

Mark dropped out of middle school and went to work with his cousin, a mechanic. He earned about $70 dollars a month. A cousin in Tikrit recommended him to a U.S. Army major. Mark worked in Tikrit but decided it was too dangerous traveling to and from Kirkuk. He feared cab drivers would kidnap him; one driver told him how interpreters were being killed.

"I knew they were trying to kill me because they gave me a warning," he said.

He left Tikrit and started working in Kirkuk with the 25th Infantry Division that preceded the 116th Brigade Combat Team.

"Here, I never feel like I'm in danger compared to where I used to be," Mark said.