By Trudy Rubin
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.
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.
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,” said 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.
After American troops left Baghdad, my Iraqi driver was tortured and jailed for having tipped officers at a U.S. base in his neighborhood.
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,” said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York City.
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.
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.
In other words, those who worked with us are last in line for our assistance.
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.
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.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.