August 7, 2007

An Iraqi Interpreter’s Story

By Michael J. Totten

“Please, sir, can you help me? I must work with Americans, because my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein. Not just me. All Iraqis. Psychological demolition.” – Iraqi woman to New Yorker reporter George Packer.

Hammer Baghdad Iraq.jpg
“The Hammer,” Titan Company Badge # S-10296

Iraqis who are not American citizens and who work as interpreters for the American military cover their faces when they work outside the wire. Mahdi Army militiamen and Al Qaeda terrorists accuse of them of collaboration with the enemy. They and their families are targetted for destruction.

Here is the story of one such interpreter who works with the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad. He calls himself “Hammer.”

MJT: Why do you work with Americans?

Hammer: When I was 14 years old all I liked was American cars and American movies. America was my dream. It was a dream come true when the United States Army came to Iraq. It was a nightmare in 1991 when they left again.

Maybe someone will think I’m lying, that I’m just saying this. If my friends say something like Russian weapons are the best or German cars are the best I say, no, Americans are. Everyone who knows me knows this about me.

If anyone says Arabs will win against the U.S. they are wrong. The leaders don’t want to be like Saddam. But if the US leaves Iraq it will be a big failure, especially for me. I don’t want to see this. Never.

MJT: Do you like working with Americans?

Hammer: A lot. Especially when I go outside the wire. I feel like a stranger here. When I go back inside I’m home. I have no friends outside, only family. When I go home I stay in my house. I don’t go out on the streets.

MJT: Why don’t you have any friends?

Hammer: I don’t feel like I belong to this society. They think like each other, but they don’t think like me. I can’t continue with them.

I like to know something about everything, to learn as much as I can. In Iraq if you know too much they will laugh and call you a liar.

When I was 20 I liked American music. They don’t like it. (Laughs.)

I don’t like Saddam. I hate his family.

MJT: Why do you have to cover your face?

Hammer: To protect my family. My family lives in Iraq. If they go to the U.S. I won’t have to do it. But I don’t want anyone to know me, to follow me and see where I live and kill my wife and son.

MJT: How did you feel when the U.S. invaded Iraq?

Hammer: Happy. It was like I was living in a jail and somebody set me free. I don’t want Saddam ruling me. Never. I was just waiting and waiting for this moment.

MJT: What do you think about the possibility of Americans leaving?

Hammer: It is like bad dream. Very bad dream. A nightmare. Worse than that. Like sending me back to jail. Like they set me free for four years then sent me back to jail or gave me a death sentence.

MJT: Tell us about living under Saddam Hussein.

Hammer: It was crazy life, like feeling safe inside a jail. If they sent you to an actual jail nothing changed. They arrested everyone, literally everyone, for no reason and sent them to jail for two weeks just so they could see the jail.

I went there three times. The first time because I worked for a movie company. They sent all of us to jail. It had nothing to do with me.

I was given a three year sentence. My family has money, so I paid the judge 50,000 dollars. I gave it directly to the judge, plus four new tires for his car and a satellite TV. He gave me a three month sentence instead of a three year sentence. He scratched “3 years” off my sentence and wrote “3 months” in by hand.

They sent me to Abu Ghraib. I saw so many things. If you want me to talk about that I would need a whole newspaper.

MJT: Tell us a little about Abu Ghraib.

Hammer: On the bus to the jail I didn’t have handcuffs. I asked why. The guard said “Look behind you.”

The first guy behind me got a 600 year sentence.

The next guy got six hanging sentences.

The third guy was sentenced to be thrown blindfolded out of a second story window. Twice.

Another guy f*cked his mother and sisters three times. He was freed on Saddam’s birthday.

Another guy had his hand cut off.

There was this last guy. He went to the market with his wife. She waited in the car when he went to buy something. When he came back to the car his wife was screaming. Two guys were in the car with her. One held her arms and the other was raping her. He grabbed his AK-47 and chased them away. They ran to their car and he shot them. Their car blew up. They were mukhabarat [Saddam’s secret police]. He got a death sentence. On his second day in Abu Ghraib they killed him and sent the mother- and sister-f*cker free for the fourth time.

The guards who ran Abu Ghraib sold hallucinagenic drugs to prisoners for money. They forced me to take them.

You need protection in there. You find someone and give him drugs and cigarettes. You pay off the guards to just punch you in the face or move you to a different cell instead of kill you.

I was freed 26 days after I arrived, on Saddam’s birthday before I finished the three months.

I can’t live with this nightmare anymore.

MJT: What’s it like out there now for the average Iraqi?

Hammer: If you give average Iraqis electricity right now it will be enough. This is the most important thing. Give them power for seven days in a row and there will be no fights.

After the US came and Saddam fell they earned 3 dollars a month. Now they earn between 100 and 700 dollars a month.

Giving them electricity would reduce violence. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what would happen to this Army base if the power was cut off forever and the soldiers had to spend the rest of their lives in Iraq. Do think think these soldiers would still behave normally?

Iraqis are paid to set up IEDs. They do it so they can buy gas for their generator and cool off their house or leave the country. Their hands do this, not their minds.

TV is the most interesting thing to Iraqis. They learn everything from the TV. Right now they only have one hour of electricity every day. Do you know what they watch? Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera pushes them to fight. If they got TV the whole day they would watch many things. Their minds would be influenced by something other than terrorist propaganda.

Right now they have no electricity. They have no dreams. Nothing. And Saddam messed with their minds. For more than 30 years he poisoned their minds.

You can’t understand Iraq because you can’t get inside their mind. When you get inside their mind…it is a crazy mind.

MJT: Why is Iraq such a mess? Is it the Americans’ fault?

Hammer: No. You can’t blame it on the Americans. Iraqis are number one at fault for this mess. They are greedy and will do anything for money. They are like people who were in jail for 30 years, were suddenly set free, were given money, then had their money taken away. What will they do next? They will kill for money. They are selfish.

They got selfish from Saddam. Iraqi people used to be different. I am the same person I always was, but most Iraqi people are different now. They feel that no one will help them so they help themselves.

MJT: Is there a solution to the problem in this country?

Hammer: Nuke Iraq.

MJT: Be serious.

Hammer: I am serious. If you screen all Iraqis, 5 million of them would be good people. Clear them out, then kill everyone else. Syria and Iran would surrender. [Laughs.]

Right now they see 100 corpses every day in the streets. It’s not okay to kill the bad people who do that?

Ok, if you want a serious solution try this:

Charge money to the families of insurgents. Fine them huge amounts of money if anyone in their family is captured or killed and identified as an insurgent. Make them pay. You can put it into law. Within one week they won’t do anything wrong because they want money. Their familes will make them stop.

The militias pay them 100 dollars to set up IEDs. Fine them thousands of dollars if they are caught and their families will make them stop. Give them that law. Go ahead. Try it.

MJT: What will happen if the Americans leave next year?

Hammer: Rivers of blood everywhere. Syria and Iran will take pieces of Iraq. Anti-American governments will laugh. You will be a joke of a country that no one will take seriously.

I will kill myself if it happens. I am completely serious. The militias will hunt down and kill me and my family. I will beat them to it by killing myself.

I worked for the U.S. government for four years. Everyone who works as an interpreter for four years and gets a signature from a General or a Senator gets a Green Card. My hope is to get this somehow. I will do anything for this.

I am doing this for my son. Everything for my son. I don’t want my son living here getting into religion and militias and Al Qaeda. I want my son to be free, to have a girlfriend, to get married, and to be a good citizen.

MJT: How often do you get to see him?

Hammer: Two days a month. Sometimes two days every two months. I leave this base without my uniform and dress like them, wearing filthy jeans and a t-shirt, so they don’t know I work here. Then drive to my house and hug my wife and son.

MJT: What does he want to do when he grows up?

Hammer: He wants to be an American soldier. He has his chair in his room with an American flag on it. Has a toy M-4. He has a little uniform that I got at the P/X.

When he sees Saddam he curses Saddam. I never told him to do that. He does this himself. When he holds his toy gun he says he will kill the insurgents. He wants to go to Disneyland. His hero is Arnold Schwartznegger – not the Terminator, but Arnold Schwartznegger. He has all his movies.

Bill Gates is my hero. [Laughs.]

MJT: Do you ever get death threats?

Hammer: Seven times. Once I had to sell my car because of it. Some come from Shia militias, others from Al Qaeda. I had two IEDs in front of my car and was shot at with an RPG when I was working in Kirkuk for Bechtel at an oil plant.

MJT: Why is there peace in Kurdistan but not in this part of Iraq?

Hammer: The Kurds got rid of Saddam earlier. They fought against Saddam just like the Shia fought against Saddam, but the Kurds won their war and the Shia lost. In 1991 the Americans were heroes to the Kurds, but they disappointed the Shia and left them to Saddam. They were not reliable. So the next time, in 2003, some Shia thought they should get help from Iran. They know Iran is not going anywhere. Iran is a more reliable ally than the Americans.

The Shia never forgot being abandoned by the Americans. They talk about this all the time, still. They know the U.S. will leave Iraq and they will face Al Qaeda alone.

Shia people here are very simple, very easy. They are easy to control. They don’t need too many things. Just electricity, rights, a decent life, a good opportunity to get a job.

MJT: Would it be possible to flip the Shia supporters of Moqtada al Sadr into supporting Americans instead?

Hammer: Yeah, it’s easy. Just give them those things. You will push away all the reasons for this trouble. 16 percent of the Shia support Moqtada al Sadr. They have no education. They don’t know what to do. I know how these people think. Give them a good reason to join your side and they will do it.

MJT: What is the worst thing you have ever seen in this country.

Hammer: 60 guys from Al Qaeda kidnapped an interpreter’s sister. She had a baby boy, six months old. They raped her, all 60 guys. Then they cut her to pieces and threw her in the river. They left the six month baby boy to sleep in her blood.

We found him on a big farm south of Baghdad. All that was left was his legs and his shoes. The dogs ate him.

I don’t want this for my family.

These people are like animals who came from another planet.

MJT: What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in this country?

Hammer: In all my life? When I was seven years old I heard the sound of wild pigeons every morning. Then something happened and I never heard them again.

Then, on the morning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I heard the pigeons again.

Really, I am not joking. I can see you don’t believe me, but I am not faking it.

MJT: What is the most important thing about Iraq that the Americans don’t understand?

Hammer: Don’t just open the jail after 25 years. Let people out step by step. Iraqis need rehab. Give them instant direct freedom and they are going to go crazy. That’s what the U.S. did.

MJT: Will the Americans win this war?

Hammer: I hope it’s going to happen. But it’s not going to happen if the Americans keep doing what they are doing unless they are a lot more patient.

MJT: Anything you want to say that I didn’t ask you about?

Hammer: Because of the few bad Iraqis who work as interpreters for the U.S., no one trusts us. But if you give me a gun I will fight harder than the Americans. You can go home. I can’t. I have to live in this country. If the Americans don’t give a Green Card to me and my family, I have to stay in this prison.

At Camp Taji the First Cavalry Division thinks interpreters are the enemy. They decided that interpreters who aren’t American citizens have to take the American flag off their uniforms before they are allowed to enter the dining facility.

I cried that day.

I wasn’t supposed to, but I complained. I said It’s okay for me to die outside wearing the American flag, but I can’t eat wearing the American flag with Americans? That was the worst day of my life with the American Army.

I’ll tell you what I tell my family. If I die here, wrap me in the American flag when you bury me. I don’t want to be wrapped in the flag of Iraq.

Hammer is looking for employment in and permanent relocation to the United States for himself, his wife, and his son. If you can sponsor him for a Green Card and help save his family, email him at and

Postscript: Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I'll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 7, 2007 7:21 AM

Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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