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U.S. closes door on a onetime Iraq ally

A former commander with the Sunni militia that aided the U.S. military 'surge' in Baghdad has been turned down for immigration to America as a refugee. His case poses a policy challenge for the U.S.

September 23, 2009|Ned Parker

AMMAN, JORDAN — The man who had fought Al Qaeda in Iraq sat in the waiting room of the immigration office. He watched others go up before him. After several hours, they called his name: Saad Oraibi Ghafoori.

In a way, the waiting burned him. He had once led more than 600 men in Baghdad; Iraqi officials and U.S. commanders came to him for help. Now he lived in a nondescript home in Jordan's capital with an upset wife and two restless children -- a 9-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl -- who had been hoping for more than a year to get the call to go to America.

He had sat in classes given by the International Organization for Migration, learning about U.S. apartment rental prices and how to apply for food stamps. He was ready to do whatever the Americans wanted: If they wished him to train U.S. forces heading to Iraq, he would do it; if they wanted him to fight in Afghanistan, he would go.

He missed being a soldier. He hadn't gone to a shooting range in more than a year. When he heard fireworks, he confessed, it made his blood pump. The 36-year-old ex-paramilitary commander, who once patrolled west Baghdad in camouflage, had developed a slight pot belly in a year of sitting at home.

In the office that day in July, Ghafoori was finally summoned to a table. The case officer was blunt: He had been rejected and there was no point in appealing the case.

The letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services read: "As a matter of discretion, your application for refugee resettlement . . . has been denied."

He looked at the other Iraqis around him. He squirmed a bit. They had already recognized him and knew him by his nom de guerre, Abu Abed, the man who had ignited Baghdad's Sunni Arab revolt against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"I broke that day," he said. "I saw myself as the biggest loser in the world."

Last year, the U.S. government removed hurdles that had made it difficult for its Iraqi employees whose lives were endangered to flee to America. It also cleared similar obstacles for Iraqis working with U.S. companies. The number of Iraqis accepted in America through the State Department's refugee assistance program jumped from 1,600 to nearly 14,000 in 2008 and is expected to reach 18,000 this year.

But Ghafoori's case poses a policy challenge for the U.S. government. How should it handle the pool of 100,000 paramilitary fighters called the Sons of Iraq, many of them former insurgents, who have little in common with the Iraqi translators and civil servants that the refugee assistance program aims to help?

Does the United States have any obligation to men like Ghafoori, whom the U.S. military once funded and fought with against a common enemy?

Until now, accepting a man who may have at one time fought the U.S. military, a man who admits he killed his enemies, has been considered politically untenable in post- 9/11 America, where immigration policies have been guided by the fear of another attack on U.S. soil.

"Abu Abed confounds our sort of virtuous naivete of American foreign policy," said Kirk Johnson, an advocate for Iraqi civilian employees with the U.S. military and State Department. "We want to go fight evil and come back victors, and that's the extent of most people's comprehension -- and they don't realize in that process there are all kinds of shifting allegiances and muck and murk."

Asked about the dilemma posed by fighters such as Ghafoori, the Department of Homeland Security, which screens all those applying for refugee status, said it could not comment on specific cases and referred the matter to the State Department.

The State Department said it has not formulated a policy for the paramilitary leaders, whose history in Iraq's insurgency has largely blocked them from moving to the United States, where the law rejects anyone seeking refugee status who has persecuted others.

"There is no policy specific to the Sons of Iraq or other U.S.-supported militias," a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official referred back to the regular refugee process as the primary way for the fighters to come to the United States, although it is a near certainty that most will be rejected because of their controversial pasts.

Commanders such as Ghafoori, who have found themselves targeted by armed Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim groups, as well as by elements in Baghdad's government, have few options other than a dangerous existence in Iraq or precarious exile in a neighboring country.

Ghafoori hopes to find a way to reverse the U.S. decision, with support from friends in the American military.

One of the few routes available to him would be Homeland Security's Significant Public Benefit Parole program, which is run in close association with the Pentagon to bring in people who served the war efforts. But the program operates in near secrecy and is the equivalent of winning the lottery: The combination of official backing and luck must align to bring the person inside.

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