Grave fears for interpreters helping Australian soldiers as Iraq votes to expel foreign troops

Ben Doherty and Helen Davidson
Grave fears for interpreters helping Australian soldiers as Iraq votes to expel foreign troops. Exclusive: Shia militia leaders vow to target and kill Iraqi citizens who have aided foreign forces, describing them as enemies to be ‘eliminated’

Interpreters working with Australian soldiers in Baghdad said they fear they will be abandoned in an increasingly dangerous and chaotic Iraq, after the country’s parliament voted to expel all foreign troops and Australia said it might be forced to pull out.

Shia militia leaders have vowed to target and kill Iraqi citizens who have cooperated with foreign forces, describing them as enemies who will be “eliminated”.

On Monday night local time, the US-led taskforce in Iraq delivered a letter to the Iraqi defence minister that said preparations would begin immediately “to ensure that movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner”. However, almost immediately, the US defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, decried the letter as a “draft” and “a mistake” that “had been sent in error”.

More than 70 Iraqi interpreters who have been serving alongside Australian troops stationed in Baghdad have pleaded with the Australian government to be allowed to apply for visas for them and their families to escape the country.

One interpreter, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said they had lost faith in the Australian government’s ability or willingness to protect them.

“If the Australian army leaves Iraq or stays we will still be in a dangerous position, because your government doesn’t think about us, we mean nothing to them.”

The Australian government has told interpreters that if they are formally certified by the Department of Defence as being part of a group “at risk of harm as a result of their employment by an Australian agency in Iraq”, they can apply for visas via Australia’s embassies in Amman or Beirut.

Interpreters have asked Australian military officers in Baghdad for help, but have been told they cannot assist them. The interpreters said the cost of applying overseas is prohibitive, running to several thousands of dollars.

On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution to expel all foreign forces following the assassination in a US airstrike of the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani near Baghdad airport.

The resolution is not binding on the government, but it was backed by the prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has formally resigned but remains in a caretaker role.

Related: Iraqi interpreters who served beside Australians say they're prevented from applying for visas

“It is in the interests of both Iraq and US to end foreign troop presence in the country,” he said.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said on Tuesday she would urge the Iraqi government to allow the US-led coalition to continue its “vital work with Iraq’s security forces in countering the shared threat of Daesh”.

“In the meantime, the Australian government is working through the possible implications should the Iraqi government approve the resolution.”

A spokeswoman for the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said the Australian government was concerned by increasing tensions in the region and had “long been concerned by Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East”.

The defence minister’s office did not address questions about the future and safety of Iraqi nationals working for the ADF.

Members of Shia militia groups – many backed by Iran – have publicly threatened Iraqi nationals who work with coalition forces.

“Agents [of the US] on the ground, you are known in society … all of you are known, thanks to God, we will reach you and the resistance will reach you and we will eliminate the conspiracy that you are working on,” a Shia militia group leader said on TV, in remarks widely shared on social media.

Another said: “We will attack all Americans and all Iraqis whom work with America and support them.”

The interpreter in Baghdad said interpreters’ lives were in danger.

“Do they want one or more of us to get killed before they admit the interpreters’ lives are in direct danger? Is this what we deserve for our years of service with ADF?”

Another interpreter told the Guardian from Baghdad: “It’s a matter of time before they [the militias] take action against us.

“I usually don’t go out of my house unless it’s necessary or an urgent matter but now after the two militia leader were killed by the Americans I don’t go out at all. What about our kids when they go to school? Or … play outside? I can’t lock them in like prisoners. They have to live their childhood like normal children.

“We have the right to live like everybody else in the world without fear.”

Australia’s commitment to the US-led coalition fight against Islamic State in Iraq – Operation Okra – has a budget of $241m for this financial year, and has cost nearly $2.5bn since it was launched in 2014. There are currently 450 Australian personnel stationed in the Middle East as part of Okra.

Within Okra, Task Group Taji was established in 2015 to train Iraqi forces, originally for two years, but the mission has been consistently extended. Late last year, Australia’s commitment to Taji was scaled back, from about 250 personnel to 120.