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Iraqi interpreters for U.S. military in dangerous limbo

Thousands were promised spots first in line for special visas to the U.S., but the process has slowed to a crawl. Now the Iraqis, targeted for death because of their service to America, can only wait.

December 26, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

"All the embassy can tell me is that we have to wait our turn," Qasaim said.

Tariq said he has been told the same thing. He thought glowing letters of recommendation from U.S. military officers would clear his path to America.

An American colonel wrote: "In the performance of his duties, Tariq has received many death threats and murder attempts.... Tariq never faltered." The colonel mentioned that Tariq had passed stringent U.S. military security clearances.

An American lieutenant colonel wrote: "I would employ and/or work with Tariq any time, anywhere in the world." In an email to The Times, the officer, who insisted on anonymity, wrote: "He's a very smart young man … and is more well-read than most people I know."

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, has worked with several Iraqi interpreters on his four tours in Iraq and said most "have been exceptional."

One of his best interpreters was captured by Al Qaeda militants, held for seven months and tortured. He was released after his family paid a ransom, Buchanan said.

Buchanan said he sympathizes with former interpreters who face death threats, and has tried to help a few obtain visas.

"If they want to come to the U.S., we should do all we can to help them," he said. "They make our country all that much better. They bring a richness, a diversity, and their patriotism is just incredible."

During his recent brief excursion out of his house, Tariq was guarded and edgy. His brother hovered at his shoulder, tensing at each passing car or pedestrian.

At his home, he feels like a prisoner. He watches American movies and TV shows, which he once used as a means of honing his English skills. To kill time, he tends a tiny garden of tomatoes, herbs and flowers.

He stays in touch with his fiancee. She lives in California with her mother, who once worked for the U.S. military in Iraq and eventually received a visa.

He calls the U.S. consular office regularly, only to be told that his application remains on "administrative hold." He posts queries to a chat room on the U.S. Embassy's Facebook page.

In one query, he asked: Is there light at the end of the tunnel for me?

The answer from the consular office suggested that if Tariq was unhappy with the process and wanted his application returned to him, the embassy would be glad to oblige.

Tariq let out a sharp laugh. "I guess I got my answer," he said.

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