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Published: Saturday, 5/26/2007

U.S. policy on Iraqi refugees is a scandal

WASHINGTON - Just about every American serving or working in Iraq knows Iraqis who have been loyal to the United States, have risked their lives for Americans, and are in serious danger of being killed if they stay in Iraq.

Thousands of Iraqis have fled their country, trying to escape the escalating civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Many of them have lost close relatives and have been threatened with rape, torture, or death if they continue to work with Americans. U.S. journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to interview Iraqis, terrified they will be targeted by death squads for even talking to Americans. Journalists count on Iraqi citizens to translate and to arrange interviews in hotel rooms or in secret locations. If found out, the translators and facilitators face torture or death. Yet, still they have continued to help, sometimes because of the money, but just as frequently because they are grateful to the United States.

Many Iraqis who welcomed U.S. soldiers after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein live in hiding because they can't support themselves and can't get out of the country.

Many are terrified of being betrayed by neighbors. If they have Sunni names, they are frightened of Shiites. If they have Shiite names they are afraid of Sunnis.

Last month the United States admitted one immigrant from Iraq. As Congress ties itself up in knots wrangling with the Bush Administration over what to do with 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States, it is an absolute scandal that in the past seven months, only 69 people from Iraq have been granted refuge in America.

Last year a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was leaked to a reporter, revealing that the United States has no contingency plans to help Iraqis if there is a withdrawal. Apparently, we learned little from the evacuation of Saigon. Not even Iraqis who have been physically threatened for helping top U.S. government officials or translating for the military are being given visas.

Americans are dying every day in Iraq, ostensibly to help that country be free, yet Iraqis make up less than 1 percent of the total foreign-born population in the United States. Only about 90,000 people born in Iraq live in the United States, and nearly all of them were in the United States before the current war began.

President Bush, determined to stay the course in Iraq, has never spoken publicly about the problem of what is happening to Iraqis loyal to the Americans but caught in the deadly crossfire. He has never spoken of our responsibility to help them. Mr. Bush wants immigrants here illegally to have a process to gain citizenship, but he has done nothing to help Iraqis endangered because they have helped us after we invaded their country. He has not even ordered American consul officials in Baghdad to grant visas to Iraqis most at risk. If they can get out of Iraq, they have a better chance of going to London than of going to New York. The United Nations reports that 40,000 Iraqis every month are losing their homes and becoming refugees.

This has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the upheaval that greeted the creation of Israel nearly 60 years ago. According to U.N. estimates, there may be as many as 3.7 million Iraqis made homeless inside and outside the country by the violence. Some are being compensated for their losses if the U.S. military is responsible; most flee with nothing.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, acutely aware of criticism from other countries over America's closed-door policy for Iraqis, is working on a plan that would permit up to 20,000 Iraqis into the country. But Mr. Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 would spend only $35 million on the entire problem of Iraqi refugees, one-seventh of the amount refugee experts say is needed.

The United States is afraid that letting fleeing Iraqis into the country would let in some terrorists as well, although there are many precautions and verification measures in place aimed at preventing that. But the damage to the U.S. reputation as millions see a cold shoulder turned to those who tried to help is just as dangerous.

Word is spreading quickly that in Iraq, if you help Americans, your days may well be numbered and your death will be a painful one because America will not help you in return.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

Contact her at:amcfeatters@hotmail.com



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