Let us remember to protect our wartime allies and trusted Iraqi friends

Let us remember to protect our wartime allies and trusted Iraqi friends
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It’s hard to believe that March 20 marks 15 years since the United States invaded Iraq, catalyzing a conflict that has redefined U.S. foreign policy and transformed the geopolitics in the Middle East region. Today, nearly seven years since the official end of the Iraq war, the number of U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq continues to steadily decline and Iraq has declared victory in the war with ISIS. However, for many of our Iraqi wartime allies, violence persists.

Over the course of the conflict, thousands of Iraqis provided valuable service to U.S. forces, diplomats, contractors and other government personnel to assist the U.S. mission in Iraq. I know because I worked with some of them. For this reason, I find it unconscionable that, as a result of their service, many have been threatened, tortured, abducted and even killed by local militias who pledge retaliation against U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. An internal document from May 2008 listed 667 Iraqi casualties employed by one military contractor alone.

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In March 2007, then-Congressman Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump won't be Charlie Brown to Kim's Lucy with the football Trump signs Dodd-Frank rollback US sanctions must be precise in order to spare innocent Venezuelans MORE urged Congress to support legislation to protect these Iraqi partners, stating: “I think there is nothing more important than the United States of America saying to people in Iraq, or anywhere in the world, ‘If you stand by us, we will stand by you.’”

 

In response to widespread bipartisan support and zealous advocacy from veterans, military personnel and diplomats, Congress finally took action and passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (RCIA) in 2008. This legislation created the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and the Iraqi Direct Access Program (DAP), two legal pathways intended to bring these valuable wartime partners and their families to safety in the United States.

In the 10 years since, these programs have represented a lifeline for our loyal Iraqi allies and their families, many of whom have been able to resettle to our country, living and working alongside us. Unfortunately, however, thousands more continue to live in fear and precarious conditions in Iraq or the neighboring countries to which they fled.

The Iraqi SIV program no longer accepts new applications and those still in the process have been waiting for years for a decision. Because of administrative failures and extensive processing times, there is a backlog of 60,000 Iraqis in DAP, and the Trump administration’s extreme curtailing of the U.S. refugee resettlement program undoubtedly will exacerbate the problem.

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), where I serve as board chair, is working on hundreds of cases of eligible Iraqi SIV and DAP applicants whose applications have been erroneously denied or indefinitely delayed. Additionally, President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey: Trump's 'Spygate' claims are made up Trump taps vocal anti-illegal immigration advocate for State Dept's top refugee job Seattle Seahawks player: Trump is 'an idiot' for saying protesting NFL players 'shouldn’t be in the country' MORE’s refugee ban Executive Order from Oct. 24, 2017, imposed even tougher restrictions on Iraqis to resettle to safety. Even though the restrictions were blocked in court, only 22 Iraqi refugees have arrived in the United States since November 2017.

As a veteran, this issue is personal to me. During my two tours in Iraq, I relied on the regional expertise and linguistic assistance of these partners every day. These Iraqis are not only our loyal allies but also our trusted friends who sacrificed their lives to help our troops fulfill our mission. Reneging on our promise to safeguard our wartime allies abandons our integrity and puts the wellbeing of our own soldiers at risk — not only in today’s conflicts but in any future ones, as well.

To preserve our reputation as a loyal wartime partner, I urge our national leaders to work to ensure that our Iraqi allies have a generous and expeditious pathway to safety. On the 15-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, there is no better time to address this bipartisan issue, which should matter to everyone who cares about America’s moral integrity.

Walt Cooper is a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Reserve and former active duty Green Beret. He chairs the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and is president of Cortica Healthcare.