Worldview: Will U.S. honor vow to rescue Iraqi aides?

A visa logjam endangers interpreters and others. White House must act.

Posted: October 16, 2011

In September 2007, Barack Obama made a stump speech berating the Bush team for breaking faith with Iraqis who had helped Americans.

"One tragic outcome of this war," said Obama, "is that the Iraqis who stood with America - the interpreters, embassy workers, and subcontractors - are being targeted for assassination. . . . And yet our doors are shut.

"That is not how we treat our friends. That is not who we are as Americans."

If that is so, Mr. President, why are our doors still virtually closed to our Iraqi helpers, as we exit their country? Why are you consigning many of them to death?

In 2008, Congress passed legislation calling for 25,000 special immigrant visas (SIVs) to be issued over a five-year period - to Iraqis whose lives were endangered because they'd worked for U.S. soldiers or civilians. The law's criteria were so onerous that only about 3,600 have been issued; at least 1,500 are pending a decision.

What's worse, the numbers have slowed to a trickle just as we're departing. Only 10 SIVs were issued in August. The preliminary figure for September is 43. At that rate, it will be years before the backlog is cleared.

U.S. troops are leaving Iraq by the end of 2011. I've received dozens of e-mails from desperate Iraqi interpreters (some with glowing recommendations from senior U.S. military officers) who have all received death threats. Some have been told they must wait another eight months. Interpreters are getting kicked off U.S. bases where they've lived for safety's sake, because those bases are closing.

We know what's likely to happen. Iraqi militants have already denounced those "terps" as "traitors" who should get "nine bullets." When the British left Iraqi staff behind in 2006, 17 of their interpreters were publicly executed in Basra.

We promised to get our Iraqi staff out. To quote candidate Obama: "Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq."

So let's cut to the chase, President Obama: Do you intend to honor your promise? Or will you betray the Iraqis who helped us? If you don't intervene, the SIV logjam won't budge.

That's because the SIV issue is caught in a bureaucratic thicket; nothing will move without White House intervention. The recent slowdown in SIVs stems from new security checks put in place after the arrest of two Iraqis in May in Kentucky for terrorist links. (These two rotten apples did not have SIVs.)

Senior administration officials tell me of top-level meetings dedicated to getting the SIV backlog cleared "within months." I believe they are sincere, but the numbers aren't moving.

Too many agencies are involved, and no senior White House official seems seized with this issue. (Where, I wonder, is the push from the National Security Council's Samantha Power, who once wrote so eloquently on Iraqi refugees?)

There's only one solution. In the words of Kirk Johnson, who runs the List Project, an organization dedicated to helping these Iraqis: "If President Obama said this was a moral obligation and we're going to save these people because they saved U.S. lives, do you really think there would be an eight-month wait?"

No, I don't.

But presidential eloquence alone won't save these Iraqis. There is one obvious way to clear the logjam: an airlift to remove our Iraqi friends from danger.

There is plenty of precedent for such an airlift. In 1975, after initially abandoning massive numbers of our South Vietnamese allies, Gerald Ford finally authorized a massive airlift to evacuate them to Guam and, eventually, to the United States.

In 1996, Bill Clinton ordered Operation Pacific Haven, which flew 6,000 Iraqi Kurds and other opposition activists from Iraqi Kurdestan to Guam, after Saddam Hussein's troops invaded the region. The operation took only two weeks, and security checks were conducted in Guam. If Obama ordered a similar airlift, security checks could also be conducted in Guam.

There are more recent precedents, too. The Poles, Danes, and Australians airlifted their Iraqi staff out out of the country; after the massacre in Basra, the British returned and flew out endangered staff.

Are we less honorable than the Poles, Danes, Australians, and Brits? I'll hold off on an answer. Yet, senior administration officials tell me no airlift is being considered.

Perhaps the Obama team fears the Vietnam comparison will make it look bad. It will look far worse if Iraqis we pledged to save are slaughtered - because they didn't get their visas in time.

Administration officials also tell me that efforts to clear the backlog will become more intense as the end of the year approaches. But if those efforts fail, it may be too late to organize an airlift.

In 2007, Obama said we had a "moral obligation" to those Iraqis who helped us. History will judge him on how he honors that pledge.


E-mail columnist Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

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