- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2013

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“I felt like I’d been fooled,” Jasim said about having approval for his U.S. visa withdrawn.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].”

He recalls with pride his service for U.S. troops, noting their sacrifice in liberating his homeland from Saddam’s oppression. “When I worked as a translator, I felt I was human,” Conner said.

Today, married and the father of a 1-year-old girl, he looks to the day when he and his family can escape the chaos of Iraq.

“I feel here in my country, I can’t do anything, just wait.,” he said. “The more patience, that means the more dead.”

Kirk W. Johnson, founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, estimates that the U.S. government employed 50,000 to 100,000 Iraqis during the war. Accounting is difficult, he said, because the government doesn’t share that information.

“The government doesn’t like to have a very concrete number because knowing that somehow, I think, creates a sense of obligation,” said Mr. Johnson, a former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development who served in Iraq. “It tees up the question: ‘We know how many there are, what are we going to do about it?’”

He blames a lack of urgency by the White House for a backlog in processing 5,000 to 7,000 visa applications as recently as January.

“Even a cursory look at the history of refugee processing shows that when the American president declares that this is a priority, all of the nonsense and the idiotic facets of the program melt away,” Mr. Johnson said.

Legislation pending in the 2014 defense authorization bill would extend the visa program, but Congress has only a few working days before the program’s expiration. Last year’s authorization bill did not pass until December.

To avert a disruption in the program, lawmakers first tried to include an extension in a continuing resolution but now have sponsored separate legislation. If nothing happens by Monday, the program will come to a complete stop, a U.S. official said on background.

“Across the U.S. government, every effort is being made to ensure qualified applicants are processed in a timely fashion before the Iraqi [visa] program’s scheduled end. We are also making arrangements to quickly resume processing if our authority to issue visas lapses but is later restored by Congress,” a State Department official said on background.

‘People will get kidnapped’

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which provides pro bono legal aid to interpreters, worries that the State Department will shut down its operations immediately — storing or discarding unprocessed applications, reassigning visa personnel and stop processing submitted applications.

The U.S. official said that, without a continuing resolution, only the applications of relatives of interpreters who already have received their visas would be processed; the processing on all others would stop.

If the authorization bill does not “grandfather in” visa applications that were being processed Sept. 30, those applicants would have to restart the process, which could take two to three more years, the official said.

Meanwhile, Iraqis who helped the U.S. effort in their country face brutality and fear.

“Folks are still under threat of decapitation, the siblings or children will get kidnapped for ransom, people will get kidnapped and tortured, people’s houses will get raided and burned. You name it, it’s happened,” said Katie Reisner, national policy director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. “There was a period of relative calm, and things are disintegrating again. It’s still within working memory who helped the U.S. and who didn’t.”

Former interpreters note with dread a prison break in July at the infamous Abu Ghraib that freed hundreds of extremists and criminals.

“Many bad guys were inside that jail. On the streets, you don’t know when they will get you,” said a 23-year-old Sunni Kurdish interpreter who was afraid to give his name for fear of his safety.

‘I’ll do it again’

Violence in Iraq has worsened since U.S. troops left at the end of 2011, with Sunni insurgents fighting the Shiite-majority government. In April, government security forces raided an encampment of Sunni Arab protesters in Kirkuk that left 45 people dead.

Interpreters are targeted by Sunnis and Shiites because they helped U.S. troops capture and interrogate fighters from both camps.

Ali Nori Nadir, a 26-year-old Sunni Kurdish interpreter, said interpreters are captured and killed under unknown conditions, and the government simply blames “insurgents” or “al Qaeda.”

Mr. Nadir’s U.S. visa was denied after 3 years of assisting Army units for “security issues” and for not providing “valuable and faithful service” to the government.

U.S. Embassy officials have encouraged him to reapply, but he has given up because it’s too difficult to get to the embassy in Baghdad from Kirkuk, where he lives and works as a security guard.

“You can’t tell what is an official checkpoint and what is an unofficial checkpoint,” Mr. Nadir said.

Conner said he keeps two weapons in his home. “I need it for my protection,” he said. “I do not feel safe. I am a son of Iraq, and I do not feel safe for my life.”

Jasim said he and his wife have given up trying to go to America. The State Department still has his case open, and it contacts him once or twice a year to ask him to update his contact information, but he said he no longer holds any hope.

Despite all he has been through and the disappointment he has met, he said, he does not regret his service to the American troops who freed his country from a despot, many of whom he regards as friends.

“I’ll do it for my friends,” he said, “and I’ll do it again and again and again.”