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Interpreters used by British Army 'hunted down' by Iraqi death squads

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

At least 21 have been kidnapped and shot in head over the past three weeks, their bodies dumped in different parts of the city. Another three are still missing. In a single mass killing, 17 interpreters were killed.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but militia groups fighting for control of the province - and opposed to the presence of foreign troops - are widely suspected.

"This is not a general threat against Iraqi security forces; interpreters are specifically being killed," an Iraqi police officer familiar with the case told The Independent by telephone from Basra. "It has been happening at a low level for the past 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," he said.

A British Army spokesman, Major Charles Burbridge, said intimidation against Iraqi staff had recently surged. "Over the past week, a number of our locally employed civilians have received written threats - notes pinned to their door - and they've been shouted at and threatened in the street."

Major Burbridge said the military were aware of only one interpreter working directly for British forces being killed within the past month. Iraqi sources say the figure is higher.

The British and Iraqis also disagree about the general level of violence in Basra. While the British Army insists an average of two bodies are found daily - in Major Burbridge's words, a murder rate comparable to that of Washington DC or Bogota - Iraqi police say the unofficial number is now double that. Parts of the city, including the university district of Qarma, are so dangerous that they are considered by Iraqi security forces to be no-go areas.

British forces are trying to halt the rising power of militia groups linked to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the splinter organisation Fadhila, which holds the governorship of Basra.

This effort, codenamed Operation Sinbad, has so far failed to contain the violence, and death squads still act with apparent impunity. The British embassy in Basra has been largely evacuated after becoming a regular target for insurgent mortar attacks.

"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 explained. "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. All interpreters are waiting to be killed and in three months' time we probably will have been." Tshasin Difaee, a 30-year-old former interpreter, said he quit after being threatened by Mr Sadr's Mehdi militia.

"They knew my name and I got a call on my mobile phone, and was told to leave my job or lose my head," he said. "I'm still scared they're going to come for me, they can come at any time."

Other former interpreters, including one who worked for the Desert Rats (the 7th Armoured Brigade) in 2003 for the then going rate of $2 a day, have been found shot dead. Current interpreters are paid closer to $30 (£16) a day, but the risks are increasing.

"This is targeting the interpreters and I'm sure more will be killed," the Iraqi police source said. "The British don't seem to pay much attention. An Iraqi who did some menial work in the Shatt al-Arab Hotel [a British Army base] was killed the other day, and I'm certain they never even noticed. No one came to ask about him." Various armed factions operate in Basra, joined by a complex web of alliances and enmity. The Mehdi militia is the largest single group and has frequently clashed with British forces.

Speaking to The Independent in Amman, Abu Kamael, a member of the Mehdi militia, said translators were legitimate targets and subject to the group's death squads.

"Baathists, those involved in Saddam's government, Takfiris and Wahhabis [extremist Sunni Muslims] are all our enemies," he said.

"So are the occupation armies and those helping them. Interpreters are not working for the good of Iraq, they are working for invading powers, they are traitors and are to be punished like traitors."

Major Burbridge insisted security for almost 2,000 Iraqi staff was tight, but could never amount to round-the-clock protection.

"We take the safety of our locally employed extremely seriously, we advise them on security matters, like not setting regular patterns and making sure they go home before it gets dark.

"We are aware there are people here determined to see us leave and they are prepared to hit soft targets in order to make that happen."

But he said that there was "no evidence" of a systematic campaign by insurgent death squads to kill interpreters.

"It's something we are looking at extremely carefully. These are criminal acts but we don't necessarily see them as terrorist acts."