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Story Publication logo December 30, 2008

'You Cannot Turn Your Back'

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An exodus of more than 2 million Iraqis is reshaping the Middle East -- with ominous implications...


WASHINGTON -- After a stranger snapped her photograph as she entered the Green Zone, Tina Raad's family begged her to get out of Iraq.

At first, she resisted. The Iraqi woman had sought work with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad because she wanted to join in the reconstruction of her country.

But in the eyes of Iraqi insurgents, such collaboration made her a traitor. Changing her dress, varying the route she took to work and altering her hours had not stopped their threats. When her mother and three siblings fled Iraq, she relented.

Among those Iraqis targeted for working with the Americans, the 29-year-old Raad is one of the lucky few to make it to the United States. Now, as a coordinator for the List Project To Resettle Iraqi Allies, she is helping others to follow her path.

"Iraq now is not a place for human beings," Raad says at a Starbucks in downtown Washington. Many of her former colleagues remain in Syria or Jordan, where some continue to face threats.

The List Project was created last year to address what founder Kirk W. Johnson calls "an absurdly lengthy" resettlement process for Iraqis whose work with Americans has put them at risk. Johnson was a reconstruction coordinator for USAID in Fallujah.

With four of his Iraqi former colleagues now working as case managers, and attorneys from three law firms providing legal services free of charge, he has helped 240 Iraqis navigate the paperwork and security checks required for resettlement here.

For those at risk, emigration can be a matter of life or death. Johnson says 300 Iraqi interpreters for the military have been killed since the 2003 invasion.

This year, Congress expanded the number of special immigrant visas available for Iraqi former employees to 5,000 annually. But with estimates of the number who have worked for U.S. agencies, contractors or news organizations running as high as 120,000, Johnson is thinking bigger: He wants the United States to get them all out.

"You cannot turn your back on the people who have helped you in your mission," says Johnson, who estimates that the number of Iraqis who would be eligible is 50,000 to 60,000. He also sees a strategic imperative. "I don't see how the United States should ever expect to recruit more interpreters if it's seen as getting on board a conveyor belt to the slaughterhouse," he says.

Johnson has been working with the Center for American Progress on a proposal to airlift Iraqis to a U.S. base in a third country where they could be considered for visas out of harm's way.

Coalition members Britain, Denmark and Poland, with far smaller numbers of Iraqi employees than the United States, have planned or conducted similar operations - as has the United States, in the past. Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the center, cites the 1996 removal of Iraqi Kurds to Guam and the 1999 airlift of Kosovar Albanians to Fort Dix, N.J.

Johnson is hopeful of action when President-elect Barack Obama takes office. Raad says time is not on the Iraqis' side. Some who have run out of money in Syria or Jordan have returned to Iraq to take their chances.

"We always advise against going back," she says. "They say, 'You don't know what's going on. You don't know what we are suffering.'

"You know how hard it is for a refugee. It's dangerous. They are running and hiding. They have no choice."

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