Guest Column from Iraq: Many barriers in the way of helping Leon

CAMP AL-SAQR - I'm trying to help a friend, a brave and soft-spoken Iraqi, survive this place. Last night I sat in my office with him and pored over information on Web sites regarding immigration visas and green cards.

Leon, my friend, is one of the 200 or so Iraqis working at my camp as interpreters, or "Terps." The Terps do everything from translating documents or our propaganda fliers to helping the units I cover talk to locals.

In my book, Leon is special and deserves a better shot than the one he'll get here in post-Saddam, pre-democracy Iraq. If we leave, he and his will be slaughtered. I can't let that happen. I'm on a mission to save a family.

The threat I'm talking about isn't new. It's been going on for some time. Insurgents are threatening and killing anyone who works with us.

In May they shot up a mother and her three daughters (the youngest was 7) who cleaned the camp chapel. In June insurgents kidnapped one female Terp, mutilated her and burned her to death.

The intimidation and murders continued in ones and twos through most of the summer, then rose dramatically in August and September. Almost 40 locals who worked at my camp were killed in those two months.

Another friend of mine was among that number. He edited the Iraqi newspaper my brigade sponsors.

One company had nine interpreters. Two weeks later they had two. Seven either were killed or quit.

Just last week another Terp, my friend Marwan, quit because someone threatened his wife and two young kids.

It hurt to see Marwan go. I'd been out with him a lot and loved hearing his jokes about Iraqis. He saw his world, his nation, going to hell and wanted to do something about it. He also was fearless and refused to wear a mask, as many of the Terps wear.

"What do I have to hide?" he'd ask me.

"Nothing, man," I'd reply back.

Leon is just as fearless, but lately has worn a mask on mission. The threats are coming more often now, and he's scared, he told me.

Marwan's quitting was the catalyst for helping Leon.

I've been out with Leon and the unit he works for, the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, a lot over the past 10 months. I'm looking at a photo I took of Leon leading an older man out of a building. It was taken during the search for people responsible for blowing up an IED.

Leon, an incredibly thoughtful guy who gives me insight into how Iraqi society ticks, is the very critical link between the locals and us. Without him and others like him we literally cannot communicate with the locals. So it's a vast understatement to say he's extremely important to us.

Yet, in the face of threats of death, he continues to work with us. I remember one of our first conversations. He's stayed because he believes in our mission here and wants to see a better Iraq.

We talked a few weeks ago, just before his marriage, about the growing threat on his life. The insurgents will kill him no matter if he quits or stays with us. Once we leave, he's a dead man. I can't let that happen. Leon isn't just some tool we use; he's a living, breathing person who deserves a better hand than the one he was dealt here.

To throw off the threat, he's changed his appearance every so often. Sometimes I'd see him with a beard. Sometimes he'd be clean cut. He's grown his hair out and even changed his clothing style.

I e-mailed a friend of mine at Microsoft, an Irish man, about obtaining a visa. He e-mailed me a lot of info, which I forwarded to Leon. But there's an obstacle.

The applicants have to pay around $100. That's not a big deal, Leon said. He'd pay $10,000. The obstacle facing him and his wife is the mode of paying. They can use either a credit card or a money order. Both are almost impossible for the average Iraqi to get. There's no bank system here to speak of, and no one here uses credit cards.

I told Leon we could use my credit card. There were other obstacles, normal bureaucratic stuff we can overcome. The biggest one is photos. He and his wife need digital photos for the application. So he's taking care of that this week.

Leon told me last night he doesn't want to leave. Iraq is his country, after all, his home; his entire family is here. But he

knows that he's racing against time by working with us.

His only way to survive is to get to the U.S. I'm helping him because I see what's going on out there - the bombings, kidnappings and murders - and want to see people like him flourish.

It's unfortunate, though. His country will need men and women like him and his wife.

Over the next few weeks I'll be filing more columns on my quest to get Leon and his wife out of the country. It's important to me to personalize the growing threat many of the good, brave Iraqis face here.

If it sounds as thought I've had a change of heart about this place, you're partially right. I may hate the fact we're here, but I also realize the growing threat a failed state once called Iraq will be to us.

Bill Putnam is a former assistant editor of the Kirkland Courier. A member of the National Guard, he was called into active duty and sent to Iraq earlier this year. He can be reached c/o[[In-content Ad]]