As a U.S. visa program for Iraqi interpreters nears its end Monday, one of those former military aides fears that he — as well as thousands others like him — will be left behind to face the wrath of insurgents who view him as a traitor amid intensifying sectarian combat in Iraq.
Jasim, 38, would appear to be an excellent candidate for the Iraqi interpreter visa program, which Congress set up in 2008 to grant U.S. travel permits to Iraqis who helped American troops and agencies for at least 12 months during the Iraq War.
He works for ABB Ltd., a multinational power company in Baghdad. His wife is a geologist at Baghdad University, and they have a 5-year-old child. He asked that only his first name be used to guard his safety.
During the Iraq War, Jasim served as an interpreter for three years, often coming under fire alongside U.S. troops battling insurgents and extremists in his homeland.
“Jasim, on more occasions I can attest to, picked up a weapon and fired on his own people to protect U.S. soldiers,” said former Army Pfc. Elisabeth D. Keene, who worked with and fought beside the interpreter in Baghdad. “He is genuinely one of the nicest guys I know.”
Six Army officers have written letters of recommendations for him. Meanwhile, insurgents searching for him in 2007 killed his stepbrother instead — by gouging out his eyes with a power drill.
Jasim was approved for a U.S. visa in 2009, but when he went to pick it up, he was told he would have to wait three more years to become eligible because the State Department considers him a criminal.
His crime? While fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime as a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the 1990s, he was ordered to steal documents from Saddam’s son Uday. He stole Uday’s car with the documents inside. He was caught and thrown in jail for eight years, where he endured torture and solitary confinement.
“I felt like I’d been fooled,” Jasim said about having approval for his U.S. visa withdrawn.
He is not alone. Thousands of Iraqis have applied and have waited for years as the State Department has run applicants and their relatives through a complicated series of background and security checks that involve several agencies. An ostensible six-week process routinely is stretched into a more than two-year ordeal, say attorneys at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.
The visa program was designed to grant 5,000 travel permits a year to Iraqi interpreters. Of the 25,000 visas available, the State Department had issued 4,839 as of June 30 — almost 20 percent.
The program ends Monday.
A lack of urgency
“Conner,” a 26-year-old former interpreter, has waited more than two years for a visa. Now, he said, he is targeted by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that led the uprising against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004. Even though he is also a Shiite Muslim, the militia has branded him a traitor because of his work with U.S. troops.
“They call me on my personal phone,” he said, asking that his pseudonym be used to protect his safety. “They said they will cut my head and put it in my [rectum].”