Image: Ammar Abdul Rasool Abaas
Aiyod Mawloodi  /  AP
Ammar Abdul Rasool Abaas, a former Iraqi interpreter for the U.S. military, quit his post and fled Baghdad because of insurgents' threats. He now works repairing cars in Irbil, in the relatively calm Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
updated 10/5/2007 9:30:27 PM ET 2007-10-06T01:30:27

American soldiers gave him the nickname “Allen.” Once, a wounded Humvee gunner fell onto his lap. Another time, interpreter Ammar Abdul Rasool Abaas gave testimony that helped convict a U.S. sergeant of killing a bound detainee.

For more than two years, Abaas worked alongside U.S. troops. His decision to take the job had nothing to do with pro-American sentiments. He said he needed the money to support his family.

But insurgents branded him a collaborator who should die.

Now Abaas — who quit his post and fled the main war zone because of the threats — wants to restart his life in the United States. So far, he’s made it only as far as Iraq’s northern Kurdish region with a thicket of bureaucracy and uncertainties still ahead.

Abaas’ limbo represents the tale of thousands of other Iraqi helpers for Western military forces and groups who seek to leave their war-battered homeland.

The quandary over how wide to open the door has left lawmakers in the West struggling with competing agendas: a sense of moral obligation to the Iraqi aides but worries about a flood of newcomers. The United States — with by far the largest foreign presence in Iraq — has come under the most direct criticism from rights groups for keeping a tight lid.

Washington originally planned to resettle 7,000 Iraqis this year. It has since been reduced to 2,000 — with processing time of eight to 10 months.

In May, the House of Representatives proposed a four-year plan to accept up to 60,000 Iraqis who worked for at least a year with U.S.- or U.N.-affiliated groups.

“I have offered everything,” said Abaas, a 39-year-old Shiite Muslim who fled with his family to Irbil, the capital of the relatively calm Kurdish zone, where he fixes cars for a living.

Syria now requires visas
Abaas has applied for Iraqi passports for his family of five, including 2-year-old twin boys. Then he plans to travel to Syria to apply with the U.N. refugee agency, which refers cases to U.S. officials.

But Syria — struggling with more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees — now demands visas for Iraqis in a move that could severely complicate one of the first steps to securing passage to the West.

Abaas could remain in Iraq and try to push his case with U.S. officials. But the threats make any trip outside the Kurdish area too much of a risk, he believes.

Soon after Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, Abaas got a job as a vehicle mechanic with an American contractor in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Two men visited Abaas’ wife, Samah.

“He’s a good guy,” they told her, according to Abaas. “But we took his photo when he was going to work. Tell him to quit. We’ll give him five days. If he doesn’t quit, we’ll kill him.”

Helped U.S. because he needed money
Abaas left the job, but running his own garage became impossible as security deteriorated. Months later, he got a job as an interpreter at Camp Anaconda, a U.S. base near Balad, north of Baghdad.

He was issued a helmet, a flak vest and uniform. Later, he was allowed to carry a weapon on some missions. One of his early combat experiences was a 10-day stint in the deadly alleys of Samarra, where the Sunni-dominated insurgency was active.

Abaas testifies against officer
On Oct. 25, 2004, Abaas was interpreting for Sgt. 1st Class Jorge Diaz as he questioned a detainee with suspected insurgent links. The prisoner’s hands were bound. Court-martial documents, made public last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, summarize Abaas’ statement:

“According to the interpreter, SFC Diaz pointed his weapon at the victim and said, ‘If you don’t tell me, I’ll shoot you.’ At this point, according to the interpreter, SFC Diaz shot him. The interpreter confirms in his statement that the victim was standing when he was shot and his hands were handcuffed behind his back. The interpreter states that the victim showed no signs of force or act aggressive toward SFC Diaz or any other soldier present.”

Diaz initially said the detainee made a move toward him. Another soldier backed up his story, though he later said he made that statement out of loyalty to Diaz and retracted it. Some testimony from troops in Diaz’s unit referred to Abaas as unreliable and a “liar,” but others urged him to tell investigators what he had seen.

Diaz is serving seven years in military lockup for the killing and the mistreatment of an Iraqi teenager in a separate case.

Abaas carries a Feb. 10, 2005 letter from a U.S. army captain at Camp Anaconda.

“Based on our interactions and his previous employment history with Army units, I trust him,” reads the letter, signed by Capt. Edward Quayle. “Ammar is a very perceptive and intelligent man with an education background in engineering. He is proficient in English and understands soldier slang.”

Mixed feelings about U.S. soldiers
Sitting in his sparsely furnished home in Irbil, Abaas recited “chow hall,” “What’s up?” and other American lingo that he never learned while studying English in Baghdad schools — most of it obscene chatter picked up from soldiers.

But he carries mixed feelings about his former battlefield companions. He recalled a time when he dozed in a Humvee on a pre-dawn mission. Apparently thinking Abaas was asleep, a soldier sneered when he heard the prayer call from a mosque, Abaas claimed.

“You are ignorant. You are not educated. You think all Christian people are good, all Americans are good? Everywhere in the world, there are good and bad people,” he recalled telling the soldier.

One of the good people, according to Abaas, was a soldier from Hawaii who took a photograph in 2005 of Abaas’ oldest child Zahara, now seven years old. The inscription read:

“To your sweet daughter, from me Saito, may her life be full of joy and may she meet someone as nice as you. Saito. Don’t forget me.”

Last year, Abaas said, a suicide bomber exploded a car near his Humvee northeast of Baghdad. The gunner, wounded by shrapnel in his hand, collapsed into his lap.

“I thought he had died,” Abaas said. “I hit him and said, ‘Are you good?’ He said: ‘Yes.”’

A marked man
Abaas never wore a mask during missions because it was hard to breathe and condensation fogged his glasses. He believes he is a marked man if he returns to Baghdad or nearby towns.

Last year, he attended the funeral of a slain cousin who worked for Americans. During the ceremony, he said, a text message beeped on his mobile telephone.

“Your time is coming,” it said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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