Americans like to think of themselves as a moral people.
So is it really possible that we will abandon thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives to help American troops and civilians but now face a grave threat of being killed as “collaborators”?
The short answer is YES.
It looks as if we will reward these Iraqis’ loyalty with betrayal, including many who worked as interpreters for our troops. As we head toward a final U.S. military exit by the end of 2011, there is no plan to evacuate them.
And here’s something equally shameful: Despite a 2008 act of Congress that called for 25,000 special immigrant visas over five years for Iraqis endangered because they helped Americans, fewer than 7,000 of those visas have been issued. The flow of special visas has shrunk to just nine in April, and zero in June due to new security requirements (more about that below).
There’s no doubt about what will happen to many of these Iraqis if we don’t help them. “They will be hunted down and killed,” says Kirk Johnson, who worked as an aid official in Iraq during the Bush administration. He then founded the List Project to help Iraqis who worked for American organizations.
Both Sunni and Shiite militia groups have announced that they will target “collaborators,” who will get little protection from Iraqi security forces.
After American troops left Baghdad, my Iraqi driver was tortured and jailed for having tipped officers at a U.S. base in his neighborhood. The relatives of murderous Shiite militiamen whom he had fingered had friends in the Iraqi security services and they got him arrested. Unlike many, he managed to get free and escape to Europe.
Johnson believes “at least 1,000 Iraqis who worked for us have already been killed, perhaps many times that.” So why are we dawdling on this issue?
Part of the answer is bureaucratic. “No one in the administration has made this a top priority,” says Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York City. President Obama has appointed capable people but has given them no firm mandate, even though he took a strong stand as a senator on rescuing Iraqis who helped Americans.
And partly the reason is security concerns. A recent Kentucky case involving two Iraqi immigrants suspected of insurgent ties has led to new security checks that have virtually frozen the program. This case sent Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, off on an anti-Iraqi immigrant rant that could be catching.
Yet here’s the rub. The Kentucky case involves Iraqis who came in under a normal asylum quota, not the special program for Iraqis who worked for Americans. The latter group has already undergone extensive security checks. Yet the number of visas granted them is a small fraction of the visas granted to other Iraqi refugees.
In other words, those who worked with us are last in line for our assistance. I heard of one Iraqi interpreter with the U.S. Marines who has been shot, has family members who have been shot and is in hiding. He has eight letters of recommendation from military supervisors but can’t get a visa.
Or take the case of Qasim, a 45-year-old with six kids who is living in terrified limbo. He worked since 2004 as an interpreter at a U.S. forward operating base near Mosul and went out repeatedly with our troops on dangerous night raids. He’s a member of the minority Yazidi religious sect that has been viciously targeted by militants.
Qasim and his family were known as “friends of the Americans” in his village, and now receive threats that led him to quit his job. In May, his 15-year-old daughter was kidnapped and taken to southern Iraq by her Muslim teacher (who forced her to convert and marry him). Qasim believes the girl was chosen because his situation made the family an easy target, unable to fight back.
On the verge of getting his visa, Qasim may now have to wait for months because of the new security requirements. By that time U.S. troops — his only protection — will have left the country. “That’s why I’m so worried for myself and my family,” Qasim told me by phone from Iraq.
There are plenty of precedents for what the United States should and shouldn’t do to help these Iraqis. Needless to say, the Vietnam example, where we made no advance preparations to evacuate about 170,000 South Vietnamese allies, isn’t one to emulate.
When the British left Basra in southern Iraq, 17 of their interpreters were immediately killed. After that the Brits organized an airlift of their former Iraqi staff.
The Danes (justly famous for helping Danish Jews escape during the Holocaust) also airlifted their Iraqi staff out when they left. When Polish troops went home, their Iraqi interpreters were offered asylum.
Are we less loyal to those who help us than the Danes and the Poles?
One precedent that bears study is the Guam option. In 1996, Saddam Hussein sent troops into Iraqi Kurdistan to kill Iraqi opposition forces whom we were supporting. President Bill Clinton authorized an airlift that took 6,000 Iraqis to Guam, where they could be vetted before being granted asylum in the United States.
Yes, the security situation has changed greatly since then, but a Guam option for loyal Iraqis would provide the chance to recheck their bona fides before granting them final entry.
Maybe a Guam scenario won’t be necessary. But if we aren’t prepared, our closest Iraqi friends may be clinging to our helicopters as we leave, or killed shortly afterward. Saving them will take a clear presidential directive, backed by legislators from both parties.
“Are we still capable of honoring a moral obligation to Iraqis who helped us, or has our moral compass been shattered” by post-9/11 paranoia? Kirk Johnson asked me. The answer will be self-evident if we leave our loyal Iraqi friends to be killed.