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Iraqis Who Worked for U.S. Find Resettlement Aid Slow in Coming

By Walter Pincus
Monday, June 16, 2008

The List Project is a nonprofit group that seeks to bring to the United States hundreds of Iraqis whose lives are in danger because they worked for the U.S. government or military. Despite the efforts of its founder and others, it has succeeded in only a small number of cases.

Kirk W. Johnson said the list, which he began in February 2007 with the names of 40 Iraqis who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, now contains nearly 1,000 names, including 21 applicants in the past two weeks. After 16 months of work, only 31 Iraqis on the list, and 61 of their family members, have arrived in the United States.

The U.S. government's overall performance is not much better, according to State Department officials. In the two years that an Iraqi visa program has been available for people who worked for the United States, only 763 of more than 7,000 Iraqis have been granted entry. When spouses and children are included, the number of Iraqis who had come to the United States under the program through the end of May is 1,696.

"I believe the crisis of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis represents the most urgent moral and strategic imperative the war has produced," Johnson said. "How we address it will impact our standing in the region for at least a generation to come."

He spoke last Wednesday to 40 people brought together in a basement room of the Rayburn House Office Building under the auspices of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent, nonpartisan congressional entity.

Johnson described a couple he met this year in Jordan who had worked as interpreters for the Army's 10th Mountain Division for three years. Almost two years ago, they had fled illegally after receiving threats because they were "collaborators with America."

They rationed their life savings because they had no work permits. Eighteen months passed, Johnson said, as they were "clearing hurdle after hurdle, patiently retelling their story to the array of [U.S.] officers, who struggled to implement a labyrinthine resettlement process." During that time, the woman had become pregnant. After overcoming the most difficult obstacle, approval of the Department of Homeland Security, she was required to have a chest X-ray as part of the final medical test.

"Knowing X-rays might pose a risk to her baby," Johnson said, "she inquired about whether or not the X-ray might be waived or an alternate method utilized." She had about six weeks left before it would be unsafe to fly, "and as an illegal she refused to face the uncertainty of delivery in a Jordanian hospital, where her husband might be arrested or care denied."

Johnson said he pressed the State Department for a waiver but one did not come. Instead, he said, the couple decided to return to Iraq and stay in hiding, "uncertain about which hospital would be safe for her to deliver her baby, which is due any day."

Wednesday's final presentation came from Ibrahim, an Iraqi, whose identity was protected because his family is still in Iraq. He described joining USAID in 2003 because "we wanted to work with Americans, who would teach us about the world outside. We wanted to pursue the American dream."

The dream turned to a nightmare after his name and photo were put up on a USAID Web site. There was no plan to protect him and his colleagues, he said, which "led us to believe our lives were worthless in the eyes of those who were supposedly trying to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis."

Eventually, he and others received a death threat in a letter and he fled the country. He went to India, then to Syria and finally to Egypt, where he hid in Cairo's slums. After registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he was picked up by Egyptian police and imprisoned.

He reached out to Johnson, with whom he had worked. Lawyers from Holland & Knight, working with Johnson, helped get Ibrahim to the United States.

Ibrahim said a new program, passed this year by Congress, opened up processing in Baghdad instead of requiring people to get to Syria or Jordan to be interviewed.

But, he added, the State Department coordinators in Baghdad are understaffed, don't have enough resources to process applications and require applicants to come inside the Green Zone -- though there are not enough staff members to escort them through checkpoints.

"This has led to a Catch-22. A mechanism for people to escape Iraq has been created, but only those with sufficient connections to enter the Green Zone can take advantage of it," he said.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to fineprint@washpost.com.

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