IN DECEMBER 2005, when the war in Iraq was intensifying, President George W. Bush insisted that that country could yet avoid civil war. In a speech, he praised those Iraqis who “put their lives on the line” for a free and democratic Iraq, in some cases by having the courage to defy the violence and cast ballots. Mr. Bush insisted that the United States must not “abandon the Iraqi people in their hour of need.”
Eight years later, Iraqis who put their lives on the line to help the United States are in their hour of need. They are waiting for a simple, promised act of gratitude, and it is urgent and necessary that it be provided.
These are the Iraqis who risked their lives to work for the United States as interpreters during the war. They were essential to military units and other U.S. operations, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans, helping them navigate war zones and chaos. They endured a double risk: the threat to life and limb on the battlefield and the quiet, dark threat of being targeted in their neighborhoods by insurgents because of their ties to the United States.
Congress passed legislation earmarking visas over five years for these Iraqis, and later for a similar group who helped in Afghanistan. But the application process has been cumbersome and tortuous for many: They turned in their passports, were granted interviews and then waited — and waited. According to outside estimates, several thousand Iraqis are awaiting word. All the applicants have been subject to a lengthy vetting process by the United States. There is no question that it would be decent to clear up the backlog and reward those interpreters who served with U.S. forces.
The status of the Iraqi applicants has now become more parlous because the original legislation lapsed Monday night, the end of the fiscal year. Both the House and Senate have approved new legislation that would protect the thousands of applicants from losing their place in line, but the House bill went down with the continuing resolution that was rejected by the Senate. The Senate approved a bill to protect the Iraqi applicants late Monday by unanimous consent. This may be a procedural speed bump, but the House must not dally. The danger is that, if this law is allowed to lapse for a significant amount of time, all the pending Iraqi applications may be thrown into doubt. The Afghan legislation is valid for another year.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought with American blood and treasure and that of the Iraqi and Afghan peoples, including those who subscribed to the noble goals of democracy and freedom. They took it on faith that the United States meant what it said.