Phil Sands: Iraqi workers betrayed and forsaken by Britain pay the ultimate price

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Up to 60 Iraqi interpreters working for British forces in southern Iraq may have been murdered by insurgent death squads - more than twice as many as had previously been feared.

For years Iraqis who worked with the British Army as interpreters have been hunted down and executed by death squads. No one in the British Government or military seemed too concerned about it. There were no offers of asylum or promises of safe passage to the Britain.

Now with the British on the brink of pulling out more soldiers, London is suddenly huffing and puffing, claiming to be taking the matter "very seriously". They would not want to "fail in their duty of care" to respected Iraqi employees, after all.

In truth, the British have consistently betrayed and mistreated their Iraqi staff and they continue to do so on a shameful scale. A close friend, an Iraqi from Basra, became an interpreter for the famed Desert Rats soon after they arrived in the southern port city in 2003. He wanted to help the forces he believed were there to free his people and rebuild his country.

One of the first problems he had was that the British refused to issue interpreters with bulletproof body armour. Although he was going wherever the troops went he had just his own shirt for protection.

I remember him wondering if the British thought he was magically immune to snipers, bombers and gunmen. He soon decided it was nothing of the sort - they just did not give much of a damn if he lived or died. He was not one of their soldiers and he was, therefore, expendable. How's that for duty of care?

Last November a British military spokesman in Basra said: "We advise [Iraqi workers] on security matters, like not setting regular patterns and making sure they go home before it gets dark."

Ten months on, the remark seems even more complacent and absurd. No real help was offered, just a suggestion they stay in at night and keep their fingers crossed.

What is odd about this sudden British hand-wringing is that they are talking about helping 91 former interpreters who have applied for asylum.

According to the Ministry of Defence, as many as 20,000 Iraqis have worked alongside the British military, hundreds as interpreters but thousands more as cooks, cleaners and contractors.

These people are also at risk and have never had the chance to seek asylum: 91 is not even the tip of the iceberg. Make no mistake, a host of powerful militias consider anyone working with the British a traitor worthy of death. These militias, fairly routinely, locate such "traitors" - some teenage boys, others young women - and execute them.

The only real explanation for Britain's failure to help those who helped it is political face-saving. To admit that interpreters were not safe in Iraq would be to admit the simple truth that the Iraq project has failed.

It would not look good to have 20,000 Iraqis turn up at Heathrow citing the anarchy in the country the British supposedly helped to liberate. So, to avoid that embarrassment, the interpreters were left to the death squads. At least one young Iraqi woman I know about was raped and beheaded for working as an interpreter.

My friend is now safe in America, thanks to his own resourcefulness - it had nothing to do with the US or British military - but two of his colleagues have been murdered.

He does not know what happened to the rest, and nor do the British authorities who abandoned them. With luck, Iraqi staff (all of them, if necessary) will be rewarded with asylum in Britain. But for many, that would be much too late.

- Independent

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