Key Points:

AMMAN - Iraqi interpreters working with the British Army in Basra are being systematically hunted down and executed.

At least 16 have been kidnapped and shot in the head over the last fortnight, their bodies dumped in different parts of the city. Another three are still missing. In a single mass killing, 12 interpreters were murdered.

"This is not a general threat against Iraqi security forces, interpreters are specifically being killed," an Iraqi police officer familiar with the case said.

"It has been happening at a low level for the last year, but the campaign is getting worse.

"First they get letters warning them to stop co-operating with the occupation forces, then they are killed. The interpreters are the major target now.

"Word spreads about who is working with the British - neighbours, people in the street, police officers all see the interpreters. Their identities don't remain very secret and someone is going around trying to kill them and they're succeeding."

According to the British military, just one interpreter has been killed in the last month in an isolated incident. Army spokesman Major Charles Burbidge said the mass kidnapping and execution last week had killed 17 Iraqis working for the police, not translators for the British Army.

But Iraqi security services are treating the incident as a specific attack on locals hired for their language skills, to work with the Multi-National Forces in Basra.

Other interpreters and former interpreters have been killed in separate assassinations.

"It used to be tolerable but now everyone openly calls us traitors," a 27-year-old interpreter who worked for the British at Bucca prison said.

"When I leave the base no one is there to protect me and we all know we're being hunted, the militias say we are spies.

"All of us live in terror for our lives. I want to stop this work but my family needs the money.

"As far as the militias are concerned I have turned my back on Iraq."

Tshasin Difaee, a 30-year-old former interpreter, said he quit after being threatened by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. "They knew my name and I got a call on my mobile phone and was told to leave my job or lose my head."

- INDEPENDENT