WASHINGTON—When three men wearing the black of the Mahdi Army came looking for him, Khalid Abboud al-Khafajee knew it was time to leave Iraq.
For more than three years, the retired manufacturing clerk had served as an interpreter for the U.S. military. One Marine officer he assisted in Fallujah says that his guidance on dealing with local sheiks, imams and politicians was invaluable to the safety of his men.But for Abboud, working with the invaders meant that he had to move his family four times in three years. Strangers threatened him. His name appeared on a most-wanted list posted on the gate of a Baghdad mosque frequented by militants.
"I have to ensure security for my family," Abboud, 60, said last week over the phone from Amman. "I don't care about myself. But I have to make sure that my family is safe."
Of the 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq, Abboud and his family represent what U.S. officials say is a particularly vulnerable group: those targeted by insurgents for working with the United States.
But while the State Department has identified the problem, critics say the administration has been slow to formulate a response.
Stricter security checks since Sept. 11, 2001, have limited the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the country to just 466 over the last three years. A special immigrant visa program for former military translators is capped at 50 per year. The number at risk is estimated in the thousands.
"The answer, of course, is not to bring every Iraqi refugee to the United States," said Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. "But we do have a special obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis who have bravely worked for us - and often paid a terrible price for it."
Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, says the Bush administration is "fast-tracking" Iraqis endangered by ties to the U.S. government as it processes refugees for entry into this country. The State Department has announced plans to bring 7,000 Iraqis here this year.
The administration also is developing a pair of proposals that would specifically address Iraqis who have worked with the United States. One would allow more to enter through the special immigrant visa program, which now has a seven-year waiting list. The other would expand a program that allows Cubans to enter the country to include Iraqis as well.
"I think it's fair to say that probably in that environment [in Iraq] virtually anyone associated with the U.S. government is at risk," Sauerbrey said in an interview. "We certainly know that there have been people that have been killed and maimed, and we have a great moral responsibility to help these people."
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria last year, the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948 triggered an exodus of Palestinians from the Holy Land, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Fifty thousand more are leaving Iraq every month.
Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who questioned Sauerbrey about the situation at a Senate hearing this year, said the administration should be doing more to safeguard Iraqis who have been targeted for working with the United States.
"Maybe it's a priority, but I don't see the urgency," said the Maryland senator. "And this is a matter of urgency."
Sauerbrey takes exception to such criticism. The State Department had prepared for a refugee crisis that was expected to follow the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 but never materialized. Until a year ago, she says, officials were focused primarily on helping more than 250,000 displaced Iraqis return to their homes.
Then came the sectarian violence of the past year, which continues to send Iraqis fleeing. When the scope of the problem became apparent late last summer, Sauerbrey says, the State Department began coordinating a response with the U.N.
With security screening, health checks and interviews now under way, it will be at least two months before the first Iraqi refugees arrive.
"This is a balancing act between the humanitarian work that we do, that is our mission, and the security of the people of the United States," she said. "And we recognize that we have to be very careful as we bring Iraqis into the U.S. that we're also ensuring that no one is coming in that wants to do harm to the people of the United States."
The U.S. has pledged $18 million toward the $60 million that the U.N. is seeking for Iraq. The money will be used to help register refugees and to bolster social services in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and other countries that are receiving them. Sauerbrey says the U.N. has agreed to expedite the registration of Iraqis endangered by their association with the U.S.