Why would anyone in the Middle East want to ally with the United States?
There are many reasons to ask this question, but here’s one I find especially disturbing: how the United States lets down thousands of Afghans and Iraqis whose lives are at risk because they have worked with Americans. For this “sin,” they and their relatives are now being threatened with death.
I have written of the long delays in issuing special visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators who worked with U.S. military and civilian officials. But there are thousands of other Iraqis who were promised refuge because they or close relatives worked for U.S. contractors, nongovernmental organizations and media, and they are living in fear as their applications are delayed endlessly – even before the years-long process of security vetting.
The whole process can drag on for as much as five years, say staffers at the International Refugee Assistance Project, a part of the Urban Justice Project. One prime reason: There aren’t enough personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to handle the thousands of applicants.
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The story of Ali – whose family I have known for years – illustrates the brutal retaliation that can befall these Iraqis while their applications are in limbo. It makes one wonder why anyone would be foolish enough to assist Americans again.
Ali’s life is in danger because his brother Salam helped the U.S. military and worked with U.S. journalists. Salam was my fixer, translator and driver during many trips to Baghdad between 2003 and 2008.
During the brutal civil war years of 2005 to 2007, radical Shiite militiamen known as the Mahdi Army began murdering many of Salam’s Sunni neighbors and driving the rest from the neighborhood. The same militia was also killing U.S. soldiers.
Salam was infuriated by the sectarian slaughter and tipped off officers at a U.S. forward operating base in his neighborhood about who was doing the killing, leading to the arrest of local militia members. He also brought me to the neighborhood to write about the militia murders.
When U.S. troops withdrew from Baghdad and the base in Salam’s neighborhood shut down, Salam and his family paid a terrible price.
The Shiite militia he had fingered – which had contacts inside the Iraqi army – ensured that Salam was arrested by the military and tortured. While he was in jail, the militiamen gunned down one of his brothers and a cousin. After his release, he received multiple death threats and had to flee Iraq, crossing by leaky boat from Turkey to Cyprus.
In Baghdad, Shiite militiamen were emboldened by the chaos and sought further revenge. In June, Mahdi Army goons scrawled graffiti on Salam’s Baghdad house, calling him an “American spy,” and threatened to kill more family members.
Ali had to go into hiding, changing location frequently, while his wife and children moved in with relatives. In desperation, he applied in August for entry into the United States under the direct access program; he and his family were eligible because Salam had worked for a U.S. newspaper. (Salam’s help to the U.S. military, verified by three Army officers, didn’t help because he did it for free.)
Here is where the story really gets maddening. Ali knew he might have to wait up to two years for security checks in a Kafkaesque process. But he never imagined that he might wait indefinitely just to enter the queue.
The DAP process requires verification of employment and two interviews at the U.S. Embassy before security checks even begin. But in June 2014, after the Islamic State seized Mosul and threatened Baghdad, nonessential embassy personnel were evacuated, slashing the number working on refugee processing and halting the process for 10 months.
There is now a backlog of 60,000 applicants and family members.
It took six months for the DAP process just to verify Ali’s employment, and he has yet to be called for his first interview. His parents’ house has been attacked with a grenade. He is fearful that he will be killed before the first interview is held.
Salam, worried sick in Cyprus that his brother will be murdered, has had a heart attack.
I spoke to Ali by phone from his hiding place in Baghdad. “I’m afraid that the future will be even worse for me and my family,” he told me. “I can’t go out on the street in daylight because someone from the militia might be waiting to kill me. My kids can’t go to school because they are in danger, too.”
State Department officials tell me the number of personnel available to interview DAP applicants has now risen to 20 (from 10 a year ago) and they hope it will be increased to 30. But far more will be needed to process 60,000 applicants.
Ali and Salam find it nearly impossible to understand bureaucratic explanations. In language I’ve heard repeatedly from stranded Iraqi and Afghan translators, the brothers wonder why U.S. officials have abandoned the people who helped them.
Salam, whose uncle was murdered by Saddam Hussein and who was thrilled when the United States ousted the despot, has come to a sad conclusion: “Saddam made Iraq sick,” he says, “but he didn’t kill Iraq. Now Iraq is dead.”
The question is whether Ali can survive long enough to be interviewed for the DAP program.
How can we expect loyalty from our allies in the future if we treat our current ones so shabbily or even leave them to die?
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.