At first he didn't want to talk, but after a few beers the Turkish translator and former employee of Titan - one of the largest American companies providing "human resources" to the U.S. armed forces in Iraq - loosened up and started to let me in on his riveting story of life in the field with American soldiers. The experiences recounted by the young translator, "Massoud," proved that low morale and the kind of lurid misconduct that have plagued the army since last April's Abu Ghraib scandal were actually endemic since the war began in March 2003.
Titan, of course, became infamous partially because of Abu Ghraib. At least one of its contract workers, Adel Nahkla, was allegedly involved with chronic torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Other civilian contractors like the mysterious Stephen Stephanowicz and John Israel of CACI - another "human resources" company with a checkered past and gilded future - were also accused of being involved. These allegations spawned a lawsuit filed in San Diego in June on behalf of the Iraqi victims.
Simultaneously, Titan's problems were compounded when aerospace giant Lockheed Martin dropped plans to buy up the company "because a Justice Dept. investigation into possible bribery of foreign officials by Titan subsidiaries or consultants continued past a Lockheed deadline for the purchase." The company's numerous indiscretions led to the hiring of a "vice president for ethics" on Sept. 28.
Most recently, the San Diego-based firm was hit by the news that one of its translators, an Iraqi Kurd named Luqman Mohammed Kurdi Hussein, was found beheaded in Iraq on Oct. 11. The Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which also claimed responsibility for the beheading of 12 Nepalese workers and three Iraqi Kurds on Aug. 31, took responsibility for the slaying.
Despite its ongoing problems, NBC reports, the U.S. military on Sept. 17 extended Titan's contract to provide 4,500 translators and assistants for Army operations worldwide "for six months with an option for another six months, for a potential value of up to $400 million. It is the contractor's largest single source of revenue." Although announced as a short-term "bridging contract," the deal came as sweet relief to a company that has been strung up on the rack in more ways than one since the Iraq War began in March 2003.
An Opportunity Too Good to Be True?
Massoud, fortunately, had departed Iraq long before the situation deteriorated, spending only a few months with the company before deciding to get out. I spoke with the young man, a Turk of Kurdish origin, in Istanbul. It took several days to arrange a meeting - partially because he was considering working again for the U.S. in Iraq, if the situation someday becomes more stable. However, as he admitted, this looks to be a long time off.
When we finally met, it was in the bar of one of this enormous city's down-and-out hotels, where a clientele of small-time shuttle traders and other invariably non-English speakers go to get serviced by prostitutes from Russia and the Ukraine.
By contrast, Massoud spoke excellent English, a result of both time spent in the West and his daily dealings with Istanbul's steady stream of tourists buying carpets and other goods. Like many other young men in this line of work, Massoud was impeccably dressed, hair well-oiled and flashing a gaudy gold watch. Nevertheless, I imagined that he was not in fact so wealthy as all that - one of the reasons why he was anxious not to be identified. "Maybe someday I will need to get work again with the U.S. Army," he disclosed with a bemused grin.
Massoud had been hired in the months leading up to war by a Turkish subcontractor, Ankara-based Core Resources Management (CRM). To alleviate any doubts about the veracity of his story, he laid out for me a Pentagon-issued ID card as well as the lengthy original contract from Titan. He also named several of his then superiors, but asked that their names not be mentioned.
Why had Massoud considered working for the U.S. Army in the first place? "Well, I considered that it would be an easy way to make money fast, and not be so dangerous." He tried, unsuccessfully, to convince other Turkish friends to sign up as well. In the beginning, there hardly seemed reason for worry. Originally, Massoud and other Kurdish-speaking translators had been slated to work with the American troops that were to have been operating from remote bases in the mountainous Kurdish-inhabited region of southern Turkey, bordering on Iraq. Far away from the fighting, in the vicinity of friends and family, the job seemed like a maximum gain, minimum investment situation.
However, when Turkish parliamentarians astonished the Bush administration by refusing to allow American troops to use their country as a launching pad for war in late February 2003, everything changed. The translators would instead be shipped straight to Iraq - with or without Turkish support.
A Rocky Start
And so on the 2nd or 3rd of April 2003, Massoud recounts, he and 30 or so other translators were flown from Ramstein Air Base in Germany (another country that allegedly refused to go along with U.S. plans, by the way) to northern Iraq, under cover of darkness. "The flight was terrible," he recounts. "Turbulence, and we couldn't use any lights. When we finally got there, to a place called Bashut near Kirkuk, they told us that a Major Sanchez was waiting for us. "'Where?' we asked. Nobody knew."
The Turkish translators were hastily processed that night, and shown to their large, 30-man tent - which had apparently been constructed even more hastily, as it promptly proceeded to collapse once the new arrivals had gone to bed. "It was a little chaotic," recounts Massoud. "Fortunately, we all had done our military service, so we knew how to handle the situation. Still, it wasn't a very good introduction to Iraq ... and then we had to wake up at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning."
According to Massoud, Titan's vice-president had issued an urgent call to get the translators sent to Iraq immediately, because they "didn't have anyone else there." However, daylight revealed "hundreds of Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic translators. They had gotten there well before us," Massoud explained. According to him, most were over 40 years old and had allegedly been trained in translation after the first Gulf War - in faraway Guantanamo Bay, no less. "Since many of these older people had become American citizens, the soldiers trusted them more than us," Massoud attested. "And they were paid much better than us, at $5,000 a month. However, I don't think their level of translating was any better."
From the beginning, the mission was plagued with problems for both the translators and the U.S. forces.
"The local Iraqi Kurds were not so nice to us, kind of mistrustful," said Massoud. "They didn't think that we were supportive enough of the PKK [the militant Kurdistan Worker's Party, long active in the southeast of Turkey]. Because of their experiences under Saddam, and the much worse living conditions in Iraq compared to Turkey, they were fairly radicalized."
Despite being Kurdish, Massoud had little sympathy for the Kurdish militant cause. "Even if my roots are from the south of Turkey, the reality is I live in Istanbul and I am happy to be Turkish," he said.
The Americans, on the other hand, were greeted with suspicion from ethnic groups of all nationalities. "They [the soldiers] did not understand the local cultures ... and with only limited chance for communicating, it was easy to understand why they remained outsiders."
Despite the apparent mistrust between the Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, everyone realized that there was business to be done. "In Istanbul," Massoud disclosed, "we all know other ways to make a little money on the side. It was the same in Iraq. For some reason, all the soldiers had to have souvenirs, like old Iraqi flags. So I would ask the locals, who of course don't speak any English, how much they cost. They'd tell me, say, $5. Then the soldiers I was translating for would ask, 'Well, so how much did he say?' To which I would answer something like, 'sir, it'll be $45.' And they gladly paid out the money."
Loneliness, Poverty and Sex
If it seemed like money was no object to the Americans at the beginning, this began to change as the weeks wore on. "After two months in Iraq," said Massoud, "the base commanders had still failed to get a proper bank set up. The first thing on every base has to be a bank. The soldiers were depressed, trapped on the base, and had by that time started to run out of money - meaning they couldn't buy anything in the PX [army store], and had to eat only the MREs, meals-read-to-eat, which are pretty terrible, whereas we could use our local connections to buy whole chickens for $5. So, with this situation dragging on, the weather starting to warm up and the war continuing in the south, it started to affect the troop morale."
Having to cope with loneliness, malnutrition and basically captive status inside a heavily-fortified base took its toll. The lack of a bank to dispense funds, in particular, facilitated some of the most lurid events to have transpired at the base - illicit sex and prostitution.
"On the base, there was a big gymnasium," Massoud explained. "It could fit about 2,000 people and had many little side rooms on the second level, like for weight rooms or showers, for example. And a lot of the soldiers would use these rooms for sex, with each other or sometimes with translators, of course all against the rules. The shower room was the most popular."
In fact, he continued, the soldiers' steadily dwindling stock of cash led some female soldiers even to prostitute themselves. "There was this beautiful, 30-year-old woman soldier who I was friends with," Massoud recalled. "And she would sell herself regularly to the other soldiers - for only $20. I couldn't believe it." When asked if he had ever solicited the woman, the suave, dark-eyed Turk just laughed and said, "Come on, you think that I had to pay?"
Intrigue and Incompetence
When asked about other types of scandalous behavior, Massoud alluded to incidents of procurement fraud, but didn't provide details. He did not recall any instances of torture having taken place on base: "Because of my job position, I was not in a position to know yes or no about that, anyway."
Aside from being lonely and slightly depraved, Army life was dangerous. "We were fired on, on more than one occasion," Massoud recalled. "I saw killing and destruction in Iraq ... and those memories will always be with me."
Located in the ethnically mixed, oil-rich north of Iraq, the U.S. base and its environs were "swarming with intelligence officers from all different countries - Americans, Turkish, Israeli, Syrian, etc.," attested Massoud. According to him, the Turkish government's early concern for the Iraqi Turkoman minority had led them to send six Turkish army officers along to Kirkuk with the Americans. "Our site manager told us not to talk to them or ask them what they were doing there," said Massoud. "And even though we thought they were 'our guys,' and might protect us if need be, we never did get beyond a cup of tea, the usual small talk, you know."
According to Massoud, it was easy to tell the spooks from the legitimate workers for Titan or Brown & Root, who were also there. "The spies were so obvious," he said. "They'd be the kind of guys who looked really out of place and would ask too many questions, things that they didn't have any reason to ask about - especially funny since they were asking me, and I was just a translator."
When asked what nationality's agents were most easy to identify, Massoud chuckled. "You can pick out our guys [Turks] from a mile away. Even if they were dressed like regular civilians, they were the ones wearing these standard-issue military boots."
Local Overtures and Innuendo
Although he apparently knew nothing more than the soldiers did about potential external threats, Massoud did have one advantage: his ability to communicate with the locals.
"We translators were always able to live much better than the soldiers," he reminisced. "Whereas they were stuck with MREs for dinner, we all had fresh and cheap local vegetables and chicken from the Kurdish people in the area."
In fact, this relationship became somewhat more provocative when, aside from the usual buying and selling, local Iraqi women started showing up outside the base.
"They were inviting us, saying, 'come on, come out and visit us in our homes,'" Massoud said. "But how? We were trapped on the base like the soldiers. ... It was hard to explain this concept to them."
Apparently, some of these women were looking for a husband, and thought they might find one among the ranks of ostensibly well-off Turkish Kurds working for the U.S. However, since the local women also were asking for soldiers, there were suspicions that the even wealthier Americans were being sought out, too. Yet could an American soldier really be successfully integrated into the tight-knit and conservative Kurdish tribal culture, even if he wanted to?
"I don't know if they were interested in marriage," Massoud reflected. "Maybe just sex."
I marveled at how such an act could transpire, given the nature of Kurdish society and the fact that the Americans weren't especially popular, to say the least. "Well, yes, they possibly could have sex with a soldier," he nodded, pausing for a final sip of beer. "Afterwards they might get to kill him too, of course."
And with that, apologizing that the hour was late, Massoud shook my hand and disappeared as quickly as he'd come into the wet, foggy Istanbul night