Iraqis still await special US visas 20 years after invasion

Iraqis still await special US visas 20 years after invasion

23 Mar 2023 ( Aljazeera )

Abdul Qadir Al-Dulaimi was shot three times — in the head, shoulder and kidney — in what he said was apparent retaliation for his work with United States government forces after they invaded Iraq in 2003.

He thought his work and the attack would qualify him for one of the 2,500 visas set aside for Iraqis who had experienced “an ongoing serious threat” as a result of their employment with the US.

But now, years later, he is among the Iraqis still struggling to receive a visa to flee the violence that continues to target them.

The 66-year-old said he had worked with US forces from 2005 up to their 2011 withdrawal, as well as with various Shia and Sunni leaders, in an attempt to address the surging sectarian violence that gripped Iraq after the invasion.

But when he was shot in 2006, Al-Dulaimi understood the attack to be part of a campaign to drive a wedge between US soldiers and the locals helping them.

“The goal of that terrorism attack was to stop the relationship improvements between Iraqis and the US forces,” he told Al Jazeera through an interpreter provided by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a US-based group. “After that, my son was kidnapped.”

But even that string of incidents was not enough for Al-Dulaimi to receive relief through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme directed at Iraqis who assisted the US government.

Of the 2,500 original visas, 228 remain available. But while the deadline to begin the application process ended in 2014, 100 cases remain un-adjudicated, according to the US Department of State’s most recent report to Congress, published in October.

A separate SIV programme deals specifically with Iraqis and Afghans who worked as interpreters for the US military.

Meanwhile, applicants have been “facing real danger and an inability to plan their futures that is caused by this ongoing delay of their applications”, according to Deepa Alagesan, a senior supervising attorney with IRAP.

“I think that there’s a real fear among this applicant pool that they have been forgotten — that the legacy of their service to the US has been forgotten,” Alagesan told Al Jazeera.

IRAP has led a class-action lawsuit to compel the government to speed up the process, winning a major victory in 2019 that required relevant agencies to create a plan to expedite processing for the Iraqi SIV programme, as well as its Afghan equivalent.

Nevertheless, in 2022, the US government requested relief from the truncated processing plan it had created.

It cited the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other hurdles. The number of new Afghan SIV applicants had ballooned, it said, after the Taliban takeover of the country.

And in Iraq, the “continuing security crisis” in Baghdad had prevented the US embassy from fully re-opening after it was forced to suspend consular operations two years earlier, the department argued.

A judge ultimately rejected the request, and the State Department has since submitted a new plan to expedite processing, which IRAP challenged in court on March 9.

“It’s time for the US to step up and figure out how it’s going to wind down this programme,” Alagesan said, “so that these people who spent years of their lives working on behalf of the US get the fair shot at coming to the safety that they deserve.”

Meanwhile, a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “We are committed to supporting those who have helped US military and other US government personnel perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.”

“Everyone involved in this process, whether in Washington or at our embassies abroad, is fully aware of the contributions of our Iraqi colleagues and the risks they face,” the spokesperson said.

‘Lost everything’

Al-Duhaimi, a father of six, said he applied for his SIV in 2014.

US consular staff “told me that nothing is wrong with my case file and that it is in administrative processing,” he said. “That was about six months ago — the last time I heard anything about my case.”

“There hasn’t been any movement.”

Al-Duhaimi explained that even after his son was released following the 2006 kidnapping, the retaliation continued, picking up after the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011.

During a crackdown by the newly installed Iraqi government, primarily targeting Sunni Muslims, Al-Dulaimi said he was arrested three times. He added that he was “tortured and mistreated” during his detainment.

In 2012, he and his family fled to the city of Erbil in semi-autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

“They told me that if I stay [in Baghdad] where I am I will be arrested again and again and that it would be best if I would just leave the city,” Al-Dulaimi said. “That’s why I had to leave everything behind and move to Erbil city in the north.”

In January 2022, Al-Dulaimi relocated to Turkey, where he continues to pursue his SIV application at the local US embassy, supported by funding from an immigration group, he said.

In legal documents, other Iraqis have detailed the perils of waiting.

“It is still very dangerous here for people who supported the US military,” wrote one man, whose name was withheld, in a June filing.

“To this day, I still receive messages from people who criticise my work with the Americans and threaten to kill me,” the man said, explaining that he first filed his application in 2014.

“That it has been eight and a half years since I first submitted my SIV application and there is still no end in sight feels very disappointing after all the work I did and the risks I have taken to support US interests in Iraq,” he wrote.

As he spoke to Al Jazeera, Al-Dulaimi revealed he still keeps a photo of himself in Baghdad, walking next to US General David Petraeus, who oversaw all US military forces in Iraq after the invasion.

It serves as a souvenir, he explained, of the many US officials he hosted during his work in Iraq, as part of his “services to both countries”.

“My main goal was to make the country safe and to actually help the US government in their mission in Iraq,” he said. “But instead, I have lost everything, and only this small thing — that I just want to feel safe — it’s not happening for me.”

“This process has been unfair.”