Iraqis who helped us should get visas

Posted: June 08, 2012

When bullets sprayed from a speeding al Qaeda BMW blistered Ahmed's Nissan Altima on a Baghdad highway, he knew it was time to clear out of Iraq. An interpreter for a U.S. tank brigade, Ahmed was an invaluable asset to Americans, but a traitor to some Iraqis. Because he has family in peril in Iraq, I am not using his real name.

Despite the will of Congress and the promise of then-candidate Barack Obama, Ahmed, who lives in University City, is one of the relatively few "traitors" to reach safety in America. Thousands more Iraqis who risked their lives to help Americans are "being hunted like dogs," says retired Col. Larry Rubini, who was attached to Norristown's 358th Civil Affairs Brigade in Iraq.

The hunters are too often successful. Hundreds of America's friends found death while they looked for a red-white-and-blue lifeline. All they got was red — tape.

In Iraq today, thousands of interpreters, guides and engineers — even cleaning ladies — have bull's-eyes on their backs. While bloodthirsty death squads hunt them, U.S. agencies — State, Homeland Security, Defense — shuffle papers, pass the buck and mouth mealy excuses.

A similar thing happened in Vietnam when Americans fled, taking some Vietnamese with them, but abandoning thousands to be executed or "re-educated" in concentration camps as the communists swept into Saigon.

That was a shameful stain on our honor — and we are repeating it now. It makes me ashamed of my country.

I have no direct contact with Iraqis in Iraq, but the List Project put me in touch with some who were rescued, and with American officers who worked with them (thelistproject.org has useful information).

Even in the safety of America, some Iraqis are too afraid to tell their stories. Others requested anonymity, fearing revenge against their families trapped in Iraq, waiting for lifesaving visas.

The death squads "used to be 90 percent terrorism, 10 percent political conflict," says Ahmed, a handsome 32-year-old who speaks perfect English and was an interpreter (known as a "terp") for five years. "Now, it's 90 percent political conflict, 10 percent terrorism," but the motive behind murder doesn't matter. You are still dead.

In the U.S. since 2009, Ahmed starts ticking off the names of family and friends who were murdered. He runs out of fingers before he runs out of names.

In 2008, the U.S. promised 25,000 special-immigration visas (SIV) over five years to extricate those in the terrorists' gunsights. Only 4,000 visas have been issued and the flow is actually slowing because of security concerns. As a candidate in 2007, Obama promised to help Iraqis who helped us. He has not.

Instead of dealing with this moral and humanitarian nightmare, politicians feed us decades-old nonsense about dogs on top of cars or dogs being served with a side of rice.

I want to hear Commander-in-Chief Obama say he will evacuate them now. If he doesn't (or even if he does), I want to hear Mitt Romney say that, as president, he would rescue them even faster.

Every American — you — should howl to end this disgrace, starting with veterans groups, which can make the fastest, loudest noise. If you are politically active, bring it to your leaders, whether Republican, Democrat, Green, tea party, Ron Paul, whatever. America's honor is not a partisan issue.

If you are an average Joe or Jane, write letters to the editor, post your feelings online, write to your U.S. senators. I'm embarrassed that some coalition partners — Britain, Poland, Australia, Denmark — have done a much better job of pulling their people out of harm's way.

If our government fears that a mass airlift could bring in a few bad actors, that small risk can be minimized by temporarily holding Iraqis in Guam, as we did decades ago with Vietnamese, until they were screened.

Despite risking his life, Ahmed says he has no regrets. "If it wasn't for the SIV, I would probably regret every minute I worked for the Americans," he says, then pauses. "I would probably be dead."

Majed, 33, feels the same. An electrical engineer, he worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 2005 to 2011 doing design work for buildings the Americans were putting up.

He didn't volunteer right away because the first Americans he encountered were Marines, the tip of the spear.

"At first, we didn't trust them," Majed says. It was only later, when Americans established order and started cleaning up the war mess, that "we felt they were trying to help, they were honest."

Majed's moment of peril came when he was in a convoy of three cars filled with Iraqi civilians. Terrorists attacked, intercepted one car and kidnapped the passengers. They were never seen again. Soon after, he was almost snatched by terrorists dressed like cops at a Baghdad checkpoint. Only the swift arrival of U.S. troops saved him.

That did it. He applied for an SIV and waited 2 1/2 fright-filled years before arriving in Philadelphia a month ago with his wife and twin 4-year-old daughters. As I talked with Majed in his kitchen, the girls shyly peeked around the corner. They don't speak English, but they will.

In his homeland, Majed and his Shia Muslim family might be killed by Shi'ite Muslims. Here, Lutheran Children's Services helped the family settle in a quiet section of the Northeast where neighbors, many of them Jews, greeted them warmly. This is the welcoming America we sing of, the America of kept promises.

Ahmed and Majed are safe. Thousands more stranded Iraqis are hunted down as a fumbling bureaucracy creates an America of broken promises. It makes me ashamed of my country. n

Email stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. Join Stu on Facebook. For recent columns: www.philly.com/Byko.

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