Envoy Urges Visas For Iraqis Aiding U.S.

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

The American ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan C. Crocker, has asked the Bush administration to take the unusual step of granting immigrant visas to all Iraqis employed by the U.S. government in Iraq because of growing concern that they will quit and flee the country if they cannot be assured eventual safe passage to the United States.

Crocker's request comes as the administration is struggling to respond to the flood of Iraqis who have sought refuge in neighboring countries since sectarian fighting escalated early last year. The United States has admitted 133 Iraqi refugees since October, despite predicting that it would process 7,000 by the end of September.

"Our [Iraqi staff members] work under extremely difficult conditions, and are targets for violence including murder and kidnapping," Crocker wrote Undersecretary of State Henrietta H. Fore. "Unless they know that there is some hope of an [immigrant visa] in the future, many will continue to seek asylum, leaving our Mission lacking in one of our most valuable assets."

Crocker's two-page cable dramatizes how Iraq's instability and a rapidly increasing refugee population are stoking new pressures to help those who are threatened or displaced. As public sentiment grows for a partial or full American withdrawal, U.S. Embassy officials are facing demands from their own employees to secure a reliable exit route, and the administration as a whole is facing pressure from aid groups, lawmakers and diplomats to do more for those upended by the war.

With Iraqi immigration to the United States stuck at a trickle, however, it appears that humanitarian concerns have been trumped so far by fears that terrorists may infiltrate through refugee channels. Bureaucratic delays at the departments of State and Homeland Security have also bogged down the processing of immigration requests by Iraqis fleeing violence.

Skeptics contend another reason the administration has been slow to resettle Iraqis in large numbers is that doing so could be seen as admitting that its efforts to secure Iraq have failed. The intense pressure for visas "reflects the fact that the situation is pretty dire," said Roberta Cohen, principal adviser to the U.N. secretary general's representative on internally displaced persons.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that about 2 million Iraqis have been displaced inside the country so far, and that an estimated 2.2 million others have fled to Syria, Jordan and other neighbors, where they threaten to overwhelm schools and housing, destabilize host governments and provide a recruiting ground for radical unrest. Each month, an additional 60,000 Iraqis flee their homes, the U.N. agency said.

Overall estimates of the number of Iraqis who may be targeted as collaborators because of their work for U.S., coalition or foreign reconstruction groups are as high as 110,000. The U.N. refugee agency has estimated that 20,000 Iraqi refugees need permanent resettlement.

In the cable he sent July 9, Crocker highlighted the plight of Iraqis who have assumed great risk by helping the United States. Since June 2004, at least nine U.S. Embassy employees have been killed -- including a married couple last month. But Iraqi employees other than interpreters and translators generally cannot obtain U.S. immigrant visas, and until a recent expansion that took the annual quota to 500 from 50, interpreter-translator applicants faced a nine-year backlog.

As a result, Crocker said, the embassy is referring two workers per week to a U.S. asylum program. Outside analysts and former officials say the number of Iraqi staffers at the embassy has fallen by about half from 200 last year, while rough estimates place the number of Iraqi employees of the U.S. government in the low thousands.

A 43-year-old former engineer for the U.S. Embassy who gave his name as Abu Ali said Iraqis working with Americans at any level must trust no one, use fake names, conceal their travel and telephone use, and withhold their employment even from family members. Despite such extreme precautions, he said they are viewed as traitors by some countrymen and are still mistrusted by the U.S. government.

"We have no good end or finish for us," said Ali, who quit the embassy in June and moved to Dubai with his four children.

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