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Broken Promises: America’s Forgotten Iraqi Allies Face Death and a Long Road Home

A medic talks to an Iraqi civilian with help from a translator. (Photo: Jametiks)

A young Iraqi interpreter named Ali was riding with members of the United States Army 1st Armored Division on a 2003 midnight raid outside of Baghdad when the driver made a mistake in the darkness and their armored Bradley vehicle flipped into a canal. Ali was bleeding from the head, but maintained his composure and acted fast as water filled the vehicle. Loren Ferguson, a combat medic who was in the vehicle, was pinned down by debris under water until he felt Ali pull his head up. Ferguson looked up to see Ali pulling another interpreter’s head above water. Ferguson remembers struggling to get a flashlight working as Ali moved debris out the way and opened compartment doors, allowing the driver and gunners in the vehicle’s turret to escape. Thanks to Ali’s cool head and quick thinking, everyone in the vehicle survived the crash.

“Ali came forward at a time when other Iraqis wouldn’t even look at us,” says Ferguson, remembering the early days of the war in Iraq. “He knew we were there to fight for freedom and not just take them over.” Without interpreters like Ali, Ferguson says, coalition forces would not have accomplished anything. Allies like Ali were motivated “by a true want for freedom that Americans haven’t felt in hundreds of years.”

Ferguson considers Ali a hero and says he deserves a medal, or at least a place to live in the United States. The US government, however, considers him just another Iraqi refugee who was forced to flee Iraq after working through a contracting company for the Army. Ali is one of thousands of Iraqis currently wading through a sea of red tape, with the safety and opportunity of America on one shore, and vengeful insurgent and militia groups on the other.

Revealing Ali’s full name could compromise his safety, but during the war, his American comrades affectionately nicknamed him “Tony Humvee.” In an interview, Ali told Truthout he saw combat alongside American troops, helped interrogate insurgents, and his skills helped save both American and Iraqi lives. Ferguson and his fellow American troops are back home in the US after serving in Iraq, but the war is not over for Ali, who says he is wanted by insurgent groups and militias for aiding the occupation.

In 2005, as al-Qaeda’s presence was growing in Iraq, Ali received an envelope with a bullet in it and a letter, written in blood, accusing him of being an infidel just like the Americans for which he worked.

“It says … you better leave or we will slaughter you and your whole family,” Ali told Truthout. He received several threatening letters, but he remembers this one vividly. Everyone in his former Baghdad neighborhood knew he was an interpreter. He once came home five minutes after militia members stopped by to look for him and interrogate his parents. His parent’s lives were spared, probably because of their old age. Like an untold number of interpreters, Ali was forced to go into hiding. Others have not survived, falling victim to assassination as coalition forces withdrew from Iraq.

Ali first fled Iraq in 2006 and got his master’s degree in English literature in Belarus. He returned to Iraq in 2009 to work again with the coalition forces. Iraq seemed safer at first, but militias such as the Al Mahdi army were making hit lists and publicly pledging to hunt down interpreters who worked with the US, even as these groups began assimilating into Iraq’s new political system. In April 2011, Ali applied to come to the US and fled to Jordan where he now lives as a refugee who feels forgotten by the military he served in war.

“I can’t get back to Iraq no matter what because it means death to me,” Ali says.

Hope for US-affiliated Iraqis like Ali came in 2008, when a bipartisan effort in Congress created a special visa program to allow interpreters and other professionals who are in danger because they worked for the US, especially those under threat of assassination, to immigrate to America. But last year, the Obama administration added new layers of security clearance to the program, exacerbating a growing backlog of applications and leaving former employees like Ali waiting in refugee limbo. The US granted Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 1,557 US-affiliated Iraqis in 2009 and 2,000 in 2010, but last year, the number of SIV arrivals to the US dropped to 618, according to the State Department. As of February 29, only 443 SIVs have arrived this year. The program allows up to 5,000 SIVs to be granted annually, so at least 20,000 interpreters and other allies could have potentially found safety in the US since 2008, but as of February, only 5,056 have arrived. The Obama administration has not released the number of pending applications to Truthout and other news organizations.

Ali has already been waiting a year for his application to process and has no idea how much longer it will take. He is frustrated by the new security screenings; he already received security clearance to work as an interpreter and then risked his life working for the US military. Two interpreters he worked with were killed, one in combat and the other by a roadside bomb. He refers to the soldiers he worked with as his “brothers,” and helped keep them safe in combat. How, he wonders, could the US government doubt his loyalty and simply leave him behind and at the mercy of the enemy?

“I even faced death with my brother and was ready to die at any moment,” Ali says. When asked if he ever felt like a soldier because he was exposed to so much combat, Ali says, “I am a soldier, sir.”

Ali continues to wait in Jordan with his mother and father where he keeps a “low profile,” spending a lot of time online and rarely leaving his house. The cost of living in Jordan is much higher than in Iraq, but Ali can’t find work. His resume is filled with jobs he took with the US forces, and no one will hire him because they see him as a traitor to his home country. He says he still suffers from a traumatic brain injury caused by “all of the explosions and blasts” he went through during the war, but he can’t afford health care, and there’s no veteran’s hospital in Jordan for ex-contractors and refugees.

Ali calls life in Jordan “miserable,” but with Syria being one of the only other options for Iraqi refugees, he has no other choice but to wait there. “I just want to know why the US left us behind,” Ali says.

Other interpreters who have applied for SIVs to escape Iraq are still living there under constant threat. One such interpreter is RT, who spoke to Truthout from Iraq and cannot reveal his full name. RT was interpreting for a former US Army lieutenant colonial turned defense contractor in 2004 when he learned that insurgent groups had put his name and picture on an execution list. RT says insurgents began following him and he later left the job.

In 2005, he took another job with the same contractor in Baghdad and was living in the Green Zone, where no one could enter without approval from the US military. Even there, insurgents were able to visit his apartment and threaten his wife, saying they would kidnap his son. Suspicious vehicles began following him again and he reported it to security authorities, but they did nothing.

A few months later, RT left a job site and was driving alone to the Green Zone when he stopped at a store in a small city. Three men abducted him in the store, masked his face and drove him out to the desert. RT had no idea where he was when he opened his eyes. His captors beat him and said he must die for being a spy for the US. One of the men drew a gun and shot him the face, and they left him there for dead. But RT was not dead – the bullet went through his face, not his brain. With blood pouring from the wound, RT hailed a taxi and returned to his car and then drove to the Green Zone shaken and injured, but alive. He left the job and moved his family back to his home city of Tikrit to hide.

RT went to work in the city of Taji for his same contractor boss again in 2009, this time with a cover story. When insurgents showed up at his house looking for him, his wife told them the US military had put RT in jail. He regularly risked trips to Baghdad to meet secretly with his wife or trusted family members so he could give his wife and son money to live on. In 2010, someone shot several bullets at him and missed, forcing RT back into hiding.

RT first applied to leave Iraq with the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in 2008 and then the SIV program to come to the US in November 2011. He told the US Embassy during his initial SIV interview about the threats he and his family face. Neither application has been resolved. Some SIV applications were processed in about eight to ten months until the new security checks were added; now it can take well over a year. RT says the “US government tried to be a hero” when they introduced the SIV program, but the new security hoops that applicants must jump through – and the time they must wait living under threat – makes it feel like a broken promise. Like Ali, the RT cannot understand why the US doesn’t trust him enough to come to America without extensive security checks. The American contractor he worked for has vouched for him, and he says he was one of the only Iraqis trusted with a gun when he began working and even provided crucial military intelligence to the coalition.

“We are really disappointed in the US government, they left us behind … we did what we could to help, but they left us behind,” RT says.

At this point, RT doesn’t care if the US is the country where his family ends up. He just wants to get out of Iraq. The promise of safety and stability from Iraq’s fledgling democracy gives RT little comfort. The government, he claims, is already corrupt and even being infiltrated by Iranians with an anti-Western agenda, and he and his family are clearly on the wrong side of that political fence.

“We are always under threat with this government,” he says. “They just go to any house that they want, they just arrest without a [warrant] … they take us anywhere they want without visitation, people are dying because of the beatings, people [are] being killed in jails … the situation is getting worse here everyday,” RT says.

Protecting the Homeland or Ignoring Our Allies?

The FBI arrested two Iraqi men in western Kentucky in May 2011 after the suspects worked with an informant to transport money and weapons that they thought would be shipped to insurgents in Iraq. Instead, the FBI simply gathered up the disarmed Stinger missiles, sniper rifles and grenade launchers its agents had planted, and now the two suspects are facing life in prison. One of the men, Waad Ramadan Alwan, is a suspected former insurgent and improvised bomb maker charged with conspiracy to kill US nationals abroad. Alwan and his co-defendant Mohanad Shareef Hammadi were both charged with conspiracy to provide material support to insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq. The suspects were not plotting attacks within the country, according to the FBI.

The men were allowed into the US as refugees, and the FBI’s successful sting gave the Obama administration reason to believe that al-Qaeda was seeking to exploit resettlement programs set up for former Iraqi allies and those persecuted and displaced due to their religious beliefs. As the FBI prepared to make the arrests, the Obama administration quietly worked to enhance security checks for Iraqi refugees and SIV applicants. Soon a new round of security checks involving the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies was added to an already complicated list of interviews and background checks. The two alleged terrorists in Kentucky were not interpreters or former military employees, but both the general refugee process and the SIV program set up for interpreters like Ali and RT were burdened with a new interagency clearance. The enhanced security checks prolonged the application process and had an obvious effect: the number of general Iraqi refugees that came to the US last year dropped to 9,000 after more than 18,000 were admitted in both 2009 and 2010. The number of SIV arrivals of US-affiliated Iraqis dropped by nearly 70 percent.

Anastasia Brown, director of refugee resettlement services for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, says many SIV applicants and refugees watch their prior clearances expire while waiting on the new one. “So the new security clearance is done right before the individual is ready to get on a plane, and the other security clearances which are in place have a time limit in fact,” Brown says. “What we now have is a very large population of people who have been interviewed and approved who are in fact cycling through a system of expiring clearances.” Clearances for additional family members can further complicate the process. “The effect of this is devastating, we have in fact had refugees die while waiting for their clearances to take place,” Brown says.

The State Department did not respond to several inquiries from Truthout about the backups in the SIV program. A national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden recently told USA Today that the Obama administration is working to speed up the process, but the administration has so far refused to disclose the changes or the nature of the enhanced security screening measures. SIV applicants are arriving in the US at a faster rate this year than last, but Brown says much more work needs to be done, and it must be done quickly, because many refugees and former interpreters stuck in Iraq are facing immediate danger.

Kirk Johnson, a former USAID official who worked in Baghdad and Fallujah in 2005, has spent the past six years working to bring interpreters and other former employees to the US. He says the US can and must do a better job protecting those who risked their lives working with American soldiers and contractors in Iraq.

“If it becomes known that you worked for the Americans, and you receive a death threat … if you go to the US embassy, which, you know, just recently announced it’s cutting its entire staff in half, and you tell them that you need help, you’re running for you’re life, they’ll tell you to start waiting and you’ll probably wait a year or so before the process even initiates for you,” Johnson told Truthout. “These programs exist on paper and allow all of us to feel really good about ourselves because a bill was passed, but in practice they are practically non-existent.”

The new security checks, Johnson says, imply that the US government can go from depending on interpreters and translators to fight its war to suspecting the same people of being potential terrorists. Johnson points out that less than 10 percent of more than 60,000 Iraqis who have resettled in the US were those who aided US missions. Despite being the most vulnerable Iraqis left behind, former interpreters and translators are left to face death threats in Iraq or hide in Jordan and Syria as American bureaucrats slowly verify that these former allies won’t try to blow anything up if they resettle in South Carolina or Tennessee. It’s a reality that Johnson calls “cruelly Darwinian.”

“I absolutely agree that we have to keep the US safe, but there is a point to which the ‘protecting the homeland’ argument starts to appear as a shroud to cover up incompetence or just an unwillingness to do this,” Johnson says. “There’s no political points to be won anymore for bringing these people over … but I would just argue that we’re not protecting our national interests if we’re letting people who came forward to help get exterminated.”

Johnson had returned to the US in 2006 when an Iraqi he had worked with contacted him and said he had found a severed dog head on his front steps with a note that said, “Your head will be next.” His colleague looked to the US government for help but received none, and he was forced to flee Iraq with his wife. Johnson wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times to raise awareness about those Iraqis who were facing death for working with Americans. The op-ed circulated among military folks and US-affiliated Iraqis who were also in hiding, and some of them began contacting Johnson. He started tracking down more former colleagues and discovered that a majority had fled Iraq. In the process, he learned about many more Iraqis facing death threats, and soon he started a list of their names and cases.

“Without really having any game plan, I just opened up Excel and started to make a list, and the list just kept growing and growing,” said Johnson, who handed the initial list over to the State Department after he had accounted for all of his friends and colleagues.

As word got out about the list, more Iraqis came out of the woodwork, and it continued to grow. In 2007, Johnson formally founded The List Project, which has since helped nearly 1,500 former interpreters and others on the list connect with immigration lawyers and successfully escape Iraq.

Johnson originally applauded the legislation that created the SIV program, but today he more frustrated than ever. He says the Obama administration is perfectly capable of speeding up the process and bringing more people to the US without jeopardizing national security, but lacks the political will to do so. He says America can and must do better. “We’ve reached an unfortunate endgame, and I think the executive branch has just decided that they’re not going to expend much energy on this in terms of delivering real numbers,” Johnson says.

The List Project and other groups warned the Obama administration that former Iraqi employees would face increased danger when the US pulled out, but these warnings apparently fell on dead ears as arrival numbers plummeted in 2011. Johnson worries that, in the security vacuum left by departing US forces, militias are conducting a slow war of attrition on former US interpreters and employees, killing a few here and there, but never enough to gain attention in the Western media.

To draw attention to this crisis, The List Project is compiling a new list made up of military intelligence and personal reports to document attempted and successful harassment and assassination of US-affiliated Iraqis. The list confirms Johnson’s fears: militias like the Al Mahdi army are currently hunting down the Iraqis who helped the US, many of whom are simply waiting to come home.

Help Ali Come Home

Ali spends much of his time at home on the Internet, making friends across the world. Loren Ferguson finds him on Facebook to keep his morale high. A grandmother in California corresponds with Ali and other interpreters regularly, reminding them that someone in the US cares about their plight. Ali’s friends even set up a Facebook page for Ali called “Help Ali Come Home,” where the soldiers he calls his brothers post news about the refugee crisis and share stories and photos from their time in Iraq. If Ali’s brothers had their way, he would be on a plane to the US immediately. Ali, however, must wait on the US government to confirm that he is not a security threat.

Ali contacted Truthout on Facebook several times to see how this story was coming along. He says he has recently received Chief of Mission approval, the first of five main rigorous steps toward a new life in America. The approval came after a year of waiting and Ali does not know how much longer the rest of the SIV process will take, but he is not giving up hope.

Ali’s personal Facebook page says he is from Jacksonville, Florida, not Baghdad. Ali has never been to Jacksonville, but hopes to move there when he finally makes it to America. A good friend he interpreted for in Iraq lives in Jacksonville, plus, Ali says he loves fishing and hanging out by the ocean.

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