Betrayed: The Iraqis who risked all for Britain

Sami Faleh Mohammed, 44, was killed because he was a translator for the British Army. His widow says it failed in its duty of care. His is one of 12 families seeking justice. Robert Verkaik reports from Damascus
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The Independent Online

Sami Faleh Mohammed was one of thousands of exiled Iraqis who after the invasion of Iraq decided to give his country another chance.

In September 2004 he led his wife and three children from the safety of Jordan to Basra, where he found work as a translator for the British Army. Two years later he was dead, murdered by members of the Shia militias who have targeted Iraqis who risk their own lives to help the British try to bring stability to the region.

His case is now one of 12 test claims being brought in the High Court by Iraqi translators and other workers who believe they have been betrayed by Britain. Many more are still in hiding, under sentence of death after being branded "collaborators and spies" by the militias.

On Friday Sami's widow, Suhad Jassim Mohammed, began legal action against the UK government to hold Britain to account over her husband's death. She claims the British Army owed Sami, a trusted worker, a duty of care but failed to honour that duty. As the case is publicly played out in the UK courts, the tragedy of Sami Mohammed will have a resonance for millions of other Iraqis who had likewise invested hope in Britain's intervention in Iraq. For many, that hope has already turned to despair.

For Sami Faleh Mohammed, 44, it is too late. At around 8am on Monday 14 August 2006, Sami finished his shift with the soldiers and left the British army base of Shaibah in Basra. His private hire car was ambushed on the road home. Sami was dragged out of the vehicle and beaten before being driven away by his attackers. Later that evening his body was found dumped near a police station in the city. He had been shot in the face four times.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Suhad Mohammed, 40, says she believes the British knew Sami's life was in danger. On 8 August 2006, Sami told his wife to take their three children (now aged 13, 11 and six) to Kuwait, where her sister still lived. "I asked him if there had been some trouble, if he had heard something. He just said there was no trouble, but that I should leave and he would join me later." Six days later Sami was dead.

"I got a call from my sister. They drove him away and then murdered him, just because he worked for the British," says Suhad.

She received $5,000 (£2,500) from the British but says her husband's death has rendered her life meaningless and left her three young children without a father at the time when they need him the most. "Our three boys' lives have been destroyed and I have spent the $5,000 on helping my family escape from Iraq after Sami's death. In Kuwait my children can't get proper nationality status and I can hardly afford to support my family. I just want something to secure their future."

Suhad has instructed British lawyers, London-based Leigh Day & Co, to take her case. On Friday the firm served papers on the Treasury solicitors who are acting for the Ministry of Defence. The documents include evidence that other interpreters were kidnapped and murdered in the weeks leading up to Sami's death.

There is also a letter written by Brigadier James Everard, the commander of 20 Armoured Brigade, and sent to Sami and other Iraqi civilian support in June 2006.

It says: "I am fully aware that your association with the Multi National Force (MNF) is dangerous ... In order to have stability in the region, we must have support. I would ask that you continue to show up for all your daily taskings. You should also report any intimidation which you experience to your respective line managers. We will do what we can to minimise the effects of the terrorists and criminals who stand in your way."

Sami knew that his life was in danger and was planning to stop working for the British. On 1 August 2006 he received an employment reference from one of the army officers. It read: "Sami would be a great asset to any employer and it is with regret that I am writing this letter, knowing that it is likely he will be leaving the employment of the British forces. He is doing this not as a result as any disciplinary matters, but as a result of the ever-increasing pressure that is unfortunately being applied by some Iraqis upon their fellow countrymen who work for MNF."

Sapna Malik, a partner at Leigh Day & Co, says that despite these warnings "little in reality" was done by the British Army to minimise risks faced by the Iraqi workforce. The law firm claims that this is partly borne out by the fact that Sami's replacement at the British base, two days after his murder, was not given a choice in the transfer and was not told that his predecessor had been murdered.

Suhad says her husband was popular with the British. She still has a picture of him with his arms around two officers kitted out in full Arab dress.

"A British major told me Sami was one of the best Iraqis he knew," remembers Suhad, who studied English literature after qualifying as an accountant in Kuwait.

Sami and Suhad met in a Kuwait supermarket during the first Gulf War.

"Kuwait was in the hands of Saddam and everyone was trying to help each other," remembers Suhad. "I was with my sister and Sami asked me if I needed any assistance with the shopping. We immediately clicked and I knew it was a special meeting."

Two months after coalition forces chased Saddam out of Kuwait, Sami and Suhad were engaged. But because Sami was born an Iraqi and Suhad's parents were both Iraqi, the young couple couldn't find any work in Kuwait and ended up leaving for a new life in Basra and Baghdad.

Sami took up with a Baghdad theatrical company while Suhad tried to use her accountancy qualifications. But they both found life hard under the Saddam regime and eventually moved on to Jordan. They returned in 2004 to Iraq, hoping for a brighter future.

"It was my idea," says Suhad. "I persuaded Sami to come back because I thought it would be safe. But Sami tried to change my mind. He wasn't sure it was safe yet. I wish so much that I had listened to him."

Suhad's case is one of 12 test cases being prepared for the High Court. Most of them are challenging the Government's assistance programme for former Iraqi employees.

Ms Malik says: "It is now clear that the assistance programme is harsh and illogical. These people are living in almost daily fear for their lives. The criteria set by the Government does not reflect the reality on the ground."

Among the claimants are Iraqi interpreters, clerical staff and labourers, who all face persecution after risking their lives working for British forces. The test case in the High Court will accuse the Government of abandoning former Iraqi staff who have been forced to flee their homes after being branded "spies and collaborators" by the militias. Many have had their homes bombed or family members killed, or have received death threats. All had hoped they would receive help under the terms of the UK government's resettlement and compensation scheme, set up last year.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 Iraqis have worked for the British in Iraq. Some have fled to join the two million exodus of refugees from the country. Others remain in hiding.

Last autumn the Government offered limited sanctuary to Iraqi interpreters and other staff whose lives have been put at risk because of their work. More than a thousand applications were received but almost half have been rejected, mostly because they failed to meet strict eligibility criteria.

Under the scheme, anyone working for the British military or a government department from August last year is eligible to apply for direct resettlement. Former staff who can show they were employed for a year after 2005 can apply for asylum only through a special United Nations-sponsored programme.

Last month the first three Iraqi families to be given resettlement status arrived in Britain. The Government says this shows its commitment to people who had helped British forces.

For the hundreds who don't qualify, it was a bitter reminder of what they have been denied.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said he was unable to comment on live legal actions but that the Government had published the terms of a fair compensation and resettlement programme for Iraqis who are or who were working for the British Army and its agencies in Iraq.