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Pentagon, caught by surprise by Trump’s travel ban, pushes for some Iraqis to get special consideration

A U.S. Marine, right, speaks with an officer from the Iraqi army and an interpreter at al-Asad Air Base in late 2014. (Lance Cpl. Skyler E. Treverrow/Marine Corps)

The Pentagon, caught by surprise by President Trump’s executive order Friday to restrict travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, has launched a new effort to compile a list of Iraqi citizens who have assisted the American military abroad and get them special consideration to settle in the United States.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the effort was launched after Trump’s executive order was signed Friday during a ceremony at the Pentagon. Davis said that over the weekend the White House “provided the opportunity to submit names,” but would not say whether Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine general who served in Iraq, requested the move or if the idea originated at the White House.

“There are a number of people in Iraq who have worked for us in a partnership role, whether fighting alongside us or working as translators, often doing so at great peril to themselves,” Davis said. “We are ensuring that those who have demonstrated their commitment tangibly to fight alongside us and support us, that those names are known in whatever process there is going forward.”

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Davis repeatedly declined during a meeting with reporters to say whether Mattis or Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports the order or had seen the order before it was signed, calling those details part of internal deliberations. But as late as midday Friday, senior defense officials anticipated that Trump would sign two executive orders at the Pentagon: One calling for improved military readiness, which is popular in the Pentagon, and one calling for a 30-day review of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria.

The military readiness order was signed, but Trump’s second order instead suspended the admission of all refugees to the United States for 120 days and banned for 90 days the entry of any citizen from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Trump has defended the order by saying that President Barack Obama also temporarily suspended admitting Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011. But former Obama administration officials say there was no such ban. Following an incident in which two Iraqis were arrested in Kentucky on terrorism charges, the government added stricter screening procedures and applications were processed more slowly. No specific threat was cited as Trump’s order was signed.

The signing of the order prompted protests at airports across the United States as some travelers from the affected countries arrived on planes and were detained by security personnel. Several of them were Iraqi interpreters who had worked with the U.S. military in Iraq, prompting outrage from some U.S. veterans who had worked with them overseas.

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The new restrictions on the seven Muslim-majority countries also put Trump at odds with statements Mattis made in July, before the election. He said then during an interview with Politico that Trump’s campaign-trail calls for a Muslim ban has caused leaders in the Middle East to “think we’ve completely lost it.

“This kind of thing is causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through this international system,” Mattis said.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday defended the new restrictions and their implementation, saying that 109 of 325,000 people arriving in the United States over the weekend were stopped for additional screening. Washington needs to “appreciate the service” of Iraqis who have helped the U.S. government overseas, he said, but “that doesn’t mean that we don’t let them in without a certain degree of vetting.”

Iraqis who settle in the United States after filling jobs like interpreter already faced a vetting process through the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa Program that takes at least a year or two to complete. A State Department report published in January 2016 said that 752 of 2,500 visas set aside for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government for at least a year were approved.

Davis said the U.S. government is still working through what kinds of support will warrant inclusion on the Pentagon’s list. He said it is not clear how many people could be included on the list, but tens of thousands of Iraqis are believed to have supported the United States since 2003.

The list thus far will include people from Iraq, although the U.S. military has carried out operations in Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen in the last few years.

The Pentagon also is examining whether Trump’s order affects in any way the training of Iraqi military personnel in the United States. In particular, they learn to fly F-16 fighter jets in Arizona — a point that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) brought up in a statement Sunday that expressed concerns about the implementation of Trump’s order.

“We are particularly concerned by reports that this order went into effect with little to no consultation with the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security,” McCain and Graham said. “Such a hasty process risks harmful results.”

It also was not clear Monday whether any U.S. troops were affected. Some 18,700 U.S. troops hold green cards annually; Pentagon officials said they were researching how many are from the seven countries that Trump’s order affects.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.

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