SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A military contractor in Iraq has abruptly laid off more than 200 interpreters with the U.S.-led coalition. Many of them now say they're in danger. And they're worried about retaliation from ISIS and Iran-backed militias. NPR's Jane Arraf has been following this story and joins us from Amman, Jordan. Jane, thanks for being with us.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you.
SIMON: What - tell us about these interpreters, what they have been doing and what they tell you now.
ARRAF: Well, I learned about this when I was shown a letter from a group of interpreters who were working in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. And they had written this letter to the U.S. military. It's called the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. And that's the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. So the interpreters explained to the military - they didn't sign their names but sent it collectively - they said their contracts had been ended without notice. And they said a lot of them now felt in danger of retaliation from ISIS and Iran-backed militias. And then I spoke to others in other parts of Iraq who said they were even more afraid of retaliation.
SIMON: And what makes them feel in danger?
ARRAF: Well, it's kind of the climate in Iraq right now. Even though it's much safer, there has been a big push to - sorry - to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. And some of the Iran-backed militias that have attacked U.S. forces have also specifically warned Iraqis not to work with coalition, or it would target them. In fact, Iraqi interpreters have been killed. There was one of them - an Iraqi American who was cited in an attack after being killed at a base - that President Trump used to justify retaliation against Iran based on his death.
But these people are worried, Scott, about much more targeted retaliation, basically, gunmen coming for them specifically or their families at home. And the reason for that is some of the Iran-backed militias are integrated into Iraqi security forces now. They have all the interpreters' details. I spoke with one of them who has worked for the military for years. And he says now he only goes out at night to make sure that no one recognizes him. And others are just staying away from their homes altogether.
SIMON: Jane, what are the interpreters asking for? And what's been the response from the U.S. and contractors?
ARRAF: So it's kind of a big ask. In the letter, they asked the military what they should do if they get threats. And the U.S. military first told us it hadn't received the letter. And then it indicated it had received it, but it didn't plan to reply because they didn't sign their names. They're worried, of course, of retaliation. It said it had no policy on how they should deal with threats. And the contractor - Valiant Integrated Services, which is based in Virginia - didn't respond to most of my questions. But it said the military had decided to reduce staffing levels due to the coronavirus. The military, though, didn't mention the coronavirus. It said it was because it had pulled out of some of the bases in Iraq because, it says, of the Iraqi success in fighting ISIS.
SIMON: Jane, some veterans and human rights groups say the U.S. has a history of abandoning interpreters, don't they?
ARRAF: They certainly do. Early in the war, as you know, Scott, Iraq and Afghanistan interpreters - the U.S. put a program in place for them to recognize that local staff were risking their lives and would be in danger when U.S. forces left. It's a special visa program, and it was meant to provide 50 visas a year to Iraq and Afghan interpreters. But the number has been far, far less. And, in fact, in 2018, only four Iraqi interpreters were given visas in that program. There are long delays with it. The State Department inspector general is looking into it. But one of the Iraqi interpreters tells me the U.S. Army says they don't leave anyone behind. Well, they're leaving us behind.
SIMON: NPR's Jane Arraf, thanks so much for being with us.
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