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Insult to injury

Many of Iraq's 2 million refugees risked their lives and deserve U.S. help. Only a handful get asylum.

January 19, 2007

BY NOW, MOST Americans are probably familiar with Colin L. Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" for Iraq: You break it, you own it. This notion of responsibility has been invoked to justify extending or increasing the U.S. troop presence there. But it is mysteriously absent from discussions about Iraq's 2 million refugees.

One of eight Iraqis is displaced, and the number is growing rapidly. An estimated 1,500 people flee their homes each day, especially in mixed-religion neighborhoods and cities. Of those, an unknown but significant number are Iraqis who have risked their lives to provide assistance to the U.S.-led coalition, to foreign journalists or to international nongovernmental organizations.

By any possible interpretation of the "Pottery Barn rule," the U.S. has a deep responsibility to assist in the well-being of these Iraqis. Yet the number of Iraqis granted political asylum in the U.S. last year was appallingly low: 202. In September, the administration set its 2007 asylum target at a miserly 500.

Why? One former Bush administration official has said that granting too many Iraqis refugee status would be a tacit admission that Iraq "is a losing cause." This is politics at its most cynical. Iraq's refugee crisis competes with Darfur's as the worst in the world (and it is certainly the one the U.S. is most responsible for), yet the welcome mat has gone missing. More than $100 billion in U.S. taxpayer money will be spent on war and reconstruction in Iraq this year, but only $20 million has been allocated for migration and refugee assistance.

Among the thousands of Iraqis desperately seeking a U.S. visa is the former translator for U.S. freelance journalist Steven Vincent. Vincent was murdered in 2005 in Basra. His translator was eventually spirited out of Iraq, but she can't get a visa into the United States.

Vincent's widow testified this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I have been told," she said, that her dead husband's translator "does not qualify for refugee or asylum status because Iraq is now a democracy, hence there should be no reason she would need to flee."

On "60 Minutes" this week, President Bush said Iraqis "owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude." One way to encourage gratitude is to show a little of your own -- starting with the people who risked their lives to help U.S. and other forces try to succeed.

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