Iraqi Allies Scrambling for Exits

The list of what the authors call events over a “random 79 days in a 2,500 day-old war” is gruesome.

4/26/08 — Bahaa — DEATH — Death caused by multiple injuries sustained during torture

9/11/2005 — Dieyer — KIDNAP, DEATH — Abduction, death

6/29/04 — Lamees — DEATH — Shot several times in her arms and then gunshot wound to the head — Death

10/10/05 — Haydar — INJURY — Lost left eye, ear, part of brain, shrapnel to left arm

1/9/08 — Mohammed — DEATH — Death due to booby trapped house….

The litany continues [.pdf], but what’s incredible is that these 79 Iraqis all worked for the same U.S. contractor in Iraq. They are just a fraction of Iraqis, who, according to The List Project to Settle Iraqi Allies, sacrificed themselves for a paycheck, for the future of their nation — for whatever motivation — and now find themselves in grave danger because politicians and bureaucrats here are either too wary or not focused enough on helping them resettle in the States.

Other countries that have fought in Iraq are doing their part — resettling Iraqi translators and other helpers or if they prefer, giving their former Iraqi employees ample financial packages for compensation. But critics say the United States — the greatest enduring military occupying presence in Iraq — has been slow to repay those who gave everything, leaving thousands behind to face persecution or certain death, for themselves and their families.

The List Project:

In the current war, there has been a steady but brutal bloodletting of Iraqis who have assisted American and Coalition forces.

While the full scale of violence will likely never be known with certainty, hundreds and likely thousands have already been slain. Many more have been abducted, tortured, raped, and forced to flee as a result of their collaboration. …

Unfortunately, the Iraqis to whom we have a special obligation have not yet been admitted [to the U.S.] in substantial numbers.

According to a recent story by The New York Times, only 7,000 Iraqis have been granted the Special Immigration Visas (SIV) authorized by Congress in 2008 to assist those who had been working for the U.S. during the war. Even if all 7,000 made it here, that’s still only about 12 percent of the 57,203 Iraqis admitted into the country since FY2008.

While clearly all were not targets of retaliation, some 250 contractors, most of them locals, were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the period of January 2010 to June 2010, according to a review of U.S. Department of Labor statistics published by ProPublica last year. It was the first time that contractor deaths had outpaced military deaths within a single six-month period. Working for the American occupation is clearly a bloody business.

“Many working under U.S. contracts are local civilians, often working as translators for troops, or are hired from third world countries to do basic labor, such as cleaning kitchens and toilets,” said ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller.

The total number of Iraqis who have been or are still on the payroll of the American government or a contractor working for the American government is elusive. According to the Congressional Budget Office, some 70,500 were working on U.S.-funded contracts as of 2008. Citing government figures, Miller pegged the number as closer to 118,000 for the Los Angeles Times in 2007.

Who knows how many Iraqi allies will be searching for the exits when more significant numbers of U.S. forces leave and most of the American presence is confined to the walled city that is the U.S. embassy. Critics say without proper planning of their welfare, their fate is not dissimilar to those working for the British, who did not have an evacuation plan for its interpreters when it they pulled out of Basra in 2006. Militia members began systematically targeting the British helpers, at one point killing 17 translators in one mass public execution.

Saigon, 1975

According to Kirk Johnson, executive director of The List Project, the U.S. still has no plan to ensure Iraqis’ safety as the U.S. military expects to accelerate its withdrawal towards the end of 2011, invoking the horrors of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. evacuation and fall of Saigon in 1975. “Every American high school student has seen the final images of that war, of our betrayal,” Johnson wrote last month in a Washington Post op-ed.

So what is going on? It would seem that we were to have resolved this shameful issue years ago. In a way, the Congress did. After a deliberate push by former military and legal advocates here in the U.S., Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act in 2007. It was supposed to establish 5,000 special visas (SIV) a year for five years for Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. government.

Another program, according to The New York Times, passed not long after, allows for Iraqi employees of American nonprofit organizations, media companies and contractors “to apply directly for refugee status instead of waiting for a referral from the United Nations.”

But according to The List Project in its 2010 report, “Tragedy on the Horizon: A History of Just and Unjust Withdrawal” [.pdf]:

Unfortunately, admissions [for SIVs] still lag well behind the Congressionally-intended goal of 5,000/year. As those that aren’t used roll over to the following year, there are still well over 15,000 available SIVs as intended by Congress.

As noted before, the number of SIV’s has now only reached about 7,000 out of the 25,000 Congress allotted, and still, that does not necessarily convey the actual number who made it into the country. The NYT puts that number closer to 3,100.

Overall, special visas and regular Iraqis included, the “The flow of Iraqis to the United States this year could be the smallest since 2007,” when the Bush administration was under all that pressure to open its doors in the first place, according to Tim Arango for the NYT. The paper said there were only 7,000 Iraqis total admitted in the first seven months of this fiscal year (since September), with only a tiny percent of that number being SIVs. In March, only seven SIVs were admitted and in April, nine.

This is a gross underachievement when one considers the massive upheaval that 20 years of conflict have wrought in Iraq. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the chief agency for assisting refugees at the United Nations, there were 1.3 million internally displaced Iraqis in Iraq and 1.6 million Iraqi refugees living abroad as of January.

“This is not a priority right now for anyone in the government,” said Becca Heller, who runs the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. “Not enough people in the Obama administration care about this topic.”

The logjam can probably be attributed to a couple of things. One, natural bureaucratic sluggishness and a general lack of urgency in the administration. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said on the stump:

    We must also keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us. One tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stood with America — the interpreters, embassy workers, and subcontractors — are being targeted for assassination. …

    An Iraqi named Laith who worked for an American organization told a journalist, “Sometimes I feel like we’re standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die.” And yet our doors are shut. In April, we admitted exactly one Iraqi refugee — just one!

    That is not how we treat our friends. That is not how we take responsibility for our own actions. That is not who we are as Americans. It’s time to at least fill the 7,000 slots that we pledged to Iraqi refugees and to be open to accepting even more Iraqis at risk.

Well, it is 2011, and it looks like this is exactly how we are treating our friends under Obama’s watch. One also wonders how much of this is politically driven — just as it was during the Bush regime — where it’s much better to be seen returning refugees to their homes and towns in Iraq rather than resettling them elsewhere because the violence and uncertainty has not yet abated.

Making matters worse, the government is now rescreening every Iraqi refugee admitted to the U.S. since the war began due to intelligence gaps that allowed political asylum in 2009 for an Iraqi man who later admitted to participating in roadside bomb attacks against Americans in Iraq. In May, Waad Ramadan Alwan and fellow Iraqi refugee Mohanad Shareef Hammadi were arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., for arranging with an FBI informant to send weapons and money to al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq. Federal officials said the money and supplies used in the operation never left Kentucky but the men had expressed a desire to hurt Americans stationed in Iraq.

After the arrest and aftermath, the number of Iraqis admitted to the country slowed to a trickle, particularly those under the SIV program, which is ironic, given that Alwan and Hammadi never worked for Americans and were admitted under regular asylum, not with SIVs.

To that end, critics are wondering if Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., might be overreacting to the FBI arrests and putting Iraqi allies further in peril by compounding their wait to get into the U.S. Repeated calls for comment from Paul’s office have gone unanswered, so it is unclear to what extent Paul might be affecting the process. Publicly, he has called for and participated in Senate hearings about beefing-up screening for visa applicants. He has also suggested that perhaps too many asylum applications were being approved in the first place.

“I don’t fault you for missing the needle in the haystack,” he said to DHS and State Department representatives at the July hearing. “You’ve got to make the haystack smaller.”

This wasn’t the first time he made the remark. “There’s a democratic government over there [in Iraq], and I think they need to be staying and helping rebuild their country,” he said in a speech June 8. “We don’t need them over here on government welfare.”

Paul’s comments are being met with swift derision from the advocacy community.

“When two Iraqis who did not work for the United States made it here instead of the thousands on my list who have acted heroically for our country, I’d like to know, as much as Sen. Paul does, what went wrong. But to suggest that we must shut our doors to our Iraqi allies is a grave mistake that Congress and the Obama administration must avoid,” Johnson wrote in his July op-ed.

“These Iraqi allies represent the most heavily documented refugees on the planet, having gone through extensive background checks, polygraph examinations and biometric scanning to serve alongside our troops,” Johnson charged. “Despite their service to us, which has cost them a future in their own country, their petitions for resettlement to safety here have languished in a labyrinthine ‘security screening’ process.”

Luckily, not everyone on Capitol Hill believes those Iraqis who have earned in blood and sacrifice their right to safety and security for their families in the U.S. should be held accountable for the rotten apples who are sure to be among the tens of thousands of well-meaning Iraqis who are fleeing their circumstances (that Americans helped to cause) for a better life.

According to The New Yorker’s George Packer, some 31 SIVs were approved since the NYT reported on the plight of the Iraqi refugees in July. Pressure has been put on senior administration officials from mostly Democrats to ensure that these Iraqis will not be left behind, especially as the U.S. military reduces its presence in Iraq in the coming months.

“The Iraqis assisted by this program and other SIV programs risked their lives to help protect and assist the servicemen and women, diplomats, and other nongovernmental entities that supported the U.S. mission in Iraq,” read a letter [.pdf] signed by seven Democratic senators to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 20.

“Delays in processing are leaving these Iraqis and their families vulnerable to retaliation, including death, for their service to the United States.”

However one feels about the U.S. war policy in Iraq, it is unconscionable that these Iraqis be ground up and spit out like waste because we do not have the political will or urgency to help them. Thousands are waiting for visas. To avoid another Saigon, advocates like Johnson suggest bringing those in most danger to Guam while the screening is completed. This would not be breaking new ground, advocates say; the Clinton administration did it for Iraqi Kurds in 1996, and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese were airlifted there for processing during and after the fall of Saigon.

In other cases, some 20,000 ethnic Albanians were brought to the U.S. during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, with 4,000 of the most urgent cases airlifted to Fort Dix, N.J., while their applications were processed.

So much innocent blood has been shed — much of it on our hands — in the last 10 years. While it is not quite clear how many and when, U.S. forces will be leaving Iraq in substantial numbers. Redemption comes in many forms. One way is not for the United States to leave Iraqis who believed they were doing the right thing by helping us behind.

Nor should we make the “haystack smaller.” This was our war of choice — an invasion and eight-year occupation that only the American neoconservative movement and the tools at the Iraqi National Congress asked for. We made this haystack; now it’s our turn to lie in it.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.