January 29, 2008 / 1:45 PM / 10 years ago

"Betrayal" of Iraqi interpreters comes to NY stage

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iraqi doctor turned film-maker Omer Salih Mahdi had the strange experience of seeing his life portrayed on stage this weekend at a preview performance of “Betrayed,” a play about Iraqis who worked for Americans.

“It’s really unbelievable to see this in the heart of New York,” he said afterward during a discussion on stage with playwright George Packer, a New Yorker magazine reporter.

“I watched part of my life flow in front of my eyes.”

The play is a fictionalized story of three Iraqis who worked for U.S. authorities after the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Initially full of hope for the future, their faith in America is tested as they find themselves threatened by militants on all sides, and unwelcome in the United States.

Packer said the three were composite characters with elements drawn from many interviews he conducted with Iraqi interpreters who worked for Americans, risking their lives.

One of those was Salih Mahdi, a doctor who worked as an interpreter for Packer in 2005 and eventually gave up medicine when it became too dangerous to go to work.

He turned to journalism and his film “Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone” will be shown on HBO on Tuesday. He won a scholarship and is now studying journalism in Indiana.

“After the removal of Saddam’s regime, we really hoped life would change,” Salih Mahdi said. “We all hoped to have chances to improve ourselves through working with foreigners.”

“But this became a real crime, to work with foreigners in Iraq, this means it’s a death sentence.”

A key character in the play is a U.S. diplomat. Packer says he is fictional but partly inspired by a former U.S. adviser in Iraq, Kirk Johnson, who has drawn up a list of Iraqis who worked for U.S. authorities now trying to flee to America.

State Department figures show around 1,600 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States in 2007, a tiny fraction of the more than 2 million who have fled the country.

Packer told the audience he had little hope of a change in policy under President George W. Bush.

“Of course I didn’t expect miracles but I thought this was one very narrow part of the war that professionals and journalists and advocacy and testimony could shame the administration into doing the right thing,” he said.

SHARED SECRET

U.S. officials say that helping Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government is a top priority. They are trying to establish new procedures to deal with the high numbers within the framework of tough security procedures for processing visas following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Packer says “Betrayed,” his first play, was drawn largely from a conversation he had over several days with Salih Mahdi, a Sunni, and a Shi‘ite friend of his, at a hotel in Baghdad a year ago, at the height of sectarian violence in the city.

Packer said he was struck by the friendship between the two. “I began to think about what it took for them to remain friends,” he said. “They had the same secret and the secret was they worked for foreigners.”

Salih Mahdi’s father was kidnapped in June and found dead in the morgue a week later. His older brother is blind after being shot in the head, and his two younger brothers survived being kidnapped on their way back from school.

The family has now left Iraq, allowing him to speak out and reveal his identity for the first time as the man behind the hospital documentary, first aired in Britain anonymously.

“Now after they’ve left Iraq and we have lost everything, I’ve nothing to lose anymore,” he said.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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