Reinterpreting the 'end'

BAGHDAD — I sent the dispatch below to the Post’s military reporter yesterday for a piece he was writing on how Iraq changed the U.S. military; it illustrates how the U.S. military changed one Iraqi. The dispatch was shortened (as it should have been) to an expedient anecdote at the end of a very cogent article, but I wanted to paste the whole thing here, just ’cause.

Sunset in Baghdad, from the roof of the Washington Post bureau, Sept. 19, 2011. (Photo by Dan Zak)

Sunset in Baghdad, from the roof of the Washington Post bureau, Sept. 19, 2011. (Photo by Dan Zak)

“America’s war in Iraq will be over,” the president declared Friday, but Iraq’s war in Iraq will not be. American troops will depart the country in the next two months, but many Iraqis who aided them can’t follow. A community of Iraqi language interpreters — they call themselves “terps” for short — remains stuck in a bureaucratic limbo, waiting for visas they earned years ago by risking their lives to work with the U.S. military.

One such terp, a bright-eyed man of nearly 50, expressed his conflicting feelings over Cokes and cigarettes in Baghdad Saturday night, 24 hours after the president’s announcement. He traced his glasses over his bald head, eyes welling with tears as he tried to reconcile his hopes with his reality, his love of the United States with frustration over its apparent ingratitude.

The translator — who says he would be killed by the Mahdi Army or al-Qaeda in Iraq if he is identified in any way — worked with the U.S. Army for four years in three different locations while holding down a government job. During that time he worked day and night, around the clock, except for one 24-hour period per week, he said. He chose this difficult life because he wanted to make money for his family and help Americans and Iraqis establish a foundation for a better life.

Working checkpoints and security patrols with U.S. forces, he faced both rocket attacks and suspicious neighbors. He became close friends with American soldiers. He received certificates of appreciation and letters of commendation from U.S. officers, who praised him as “dependable” and “fearless.” In June of last year, fed up with the poor water and electrical services of the Iraqi government, he applied for a visa and relocation through the U.S. office of the International Organization for Migration. Two months ago he received a letter saying that he was on the waiting list for a first interview.

“You do a good job for someone and what do you expect?” he said. “You expect them to do a good job for you. I feel frustrated because I worked for them for four years and there are many guys who worked with them for six months and are right now in the United States. No, there is no justice about this.”

All he can do, he said, is wait. With each passing day he feels more endangered and more disappointed in the Iraqi government, which he believes has mismanaged the country’s freedom and neglected public services.

The invasion, the liberation, the occupation, his years of dangerous work with U.S. forces — was it worth it?

“Life is better now than under Saddam Hussein,” he said after a long pause. “Yes, it’s a good life.”

But not good enough.

“Iraqis were in a special prison for 35 years under Saddam Hussein, then American forces removed him from power and said, ‘You are free,’” he said. “But Iraqis don’t know exaclty what freedom means. They don’t know how to use it.”

He wants to follow his American friends as they leave. He wants to settle his family in the country he helped at his own peril, he said, the country where everyone understands freedom. He’s still waiting for the freedom to do that.