War documentaries, and now he felt grateful to the Americans for freeing
him from Saddam's tyranny. He also took a certain pride and pleasure in
carrying off his risky job. "I'm James Bond, without the nice lady or
the famous gadgets," he said. He worked out of a series of rented rooms,
seldom going out in public, relying on his cell phone and his laptop,
keeping a small "runaway bag" with him in case he needed to leave
quickly (a neighbor once informed him that some strangers had asked who
lived there, and Hussein moved out the same day). Every few days, he
brought his laundry to his parents' house. He stopped seeing friends,
and his life winnowed down to his work. "You have to live two separate
lives, one visible and the other one invisible," Hussein told me when we
spoke in Erbil. (He insisted on meeting in Kurdistan, because there was
nowhere else in Iraq that he felt safe being seen with me.) "You have to
always be aware of the car behind you. When you want to park, you make
sure that the car passes you. You're always afraid of a person staring
at you in an abnormal way."
door, the second a note left outside his house. Both said, "Leave your
job or we'll kill you." The third came in December, after American
soldiers killed a local militia leader who had been one of Hussein's
most important contacts. A friend approached Hussein and conveyed an
anonymous warning: "You better not have anything to do with this event.
If you do, you'll have to take the consequences." Since Hussein was
known to have interpreted for American soldiers at the start of the war,
he said, his name had long been on the Mahdi Army's blacklist. It was
not just frightening but also embarrassing to be a suspect in the
militia leader's death; it undermined Hussein in the eyes of his
carefully cultivated contacts. "The stamp that comes to you will never
go-you will stay a spy," he said.
He informed his American supervisor, as he had after the previous two
threats. And the reply was the same: lie low, take a leave with pay.
Hussein had warm feelings for his supervisor, but he wanted a transfer
to another country in the Middle East or a scholarship offer to the
U.S.-some tangible sign that his safety mattered to them. None was
forthcoming. Once, in April, 2004, when the Mahdi Army had overrun
Coalition posts all over southern Iraq, he had asked to be evacuated
along with the Americans and was refused; his pride wouldn't let him ask
again. Soon after Hussein received his third threat, his supervisor left
"You are now belonging to no side," Hussein said.
In June, 2006, with kidnappings and sectarian killings out of control in
Baghdad, the number of Iraqis working in the Embassy's public-affairs
section dropped from nine to four; most of those who quit fled the
country. The Americans began to replace them with Jordanians. The switch
was deeply unpopular with the remaining Iraqis, who understood that it
involved the fundamental issue of trust: Jordanians could be housed in
the Green Zone without fear (Iraqis could secure temporary housing for
only a limited time); Jordanians were issued badges that allowed them
into the Embassy without being searched; they weren't subject to threat
and blackmail, because they lived inside the Green Zone. In every way,
Jordanians were easier to deal with. But they also knew nothing about
Iraq. One former Embassy official, who considered the new policy absurd,
lamented that a Jordanian couldn't possibly understand that the term
"February 8th mustache," say, referred to the 1963 Baathist coup.
In the past year, the U.S. government has lost a quarter of its two
hundred and six Iraqi employees, and many have been replaced by
Jordanians. Not long ago, the U.S. began training citizens of the
Republic of Georgia to fill the jobs of Iraqis in Baghdad. "I don't know
why it's better to have these people flown into Iraq and secure them in
the Green Zone," a State Department official said. "Why wouldn't we
bring Iraqis into the Green Zone and give them housing and secure them?"
He added, "We're depriving people of jobs and we're getting them
whacked. It's not a pretty picture."
On June 6th, amid the exodus of Iraqis from the public-affairs section,
an Embassy official sent a six-page cable to Washington whose subject
line read "Public Affairs Staff Show Strains of Social Discord." The
cable described the nightmarish lives of the section's Iraqi employees
and the sectarian tensions rising among them. It was an astonishingly
candid report, perhaps aimed at forcing the State Department to confront
the growing disaster. The cable was leaked to the Washington Post and
briefly became a political liability. One sentence has stuck in my mind:
"A few staff members approached us to ask what provisions we would make
for them if we evacuate."
I went to Baghdad in January partly because I wanted to find an answer
to this question. Were there contingency plans for Iraqis, and, if so,
whom did they include, and would the Iraqis have to wait for a final
American departure? Would any Iraqis be evacuated to the U.S.? No one at
the Embassy was willing to speak on the record about Iraqi staff, except
an official spokesman, Lou Fintor, who read me a statement: "Like all
residents of Baghdad, our local employees must attempt to maintain their
daily routines despite the disruptions caused by terrorists, extremists,
and criminals. The new Iraqi government is taking steps to improve the
security situation and essential services in Baghdad. The Iraq security
forces, in coördination with coalition forces, are now engaged in a
wide-range effort to stabilize the security situation in Baghdad. . . .
President Bush strongly reaffirmed our commitment to work with the
government of Iraq to answer the needs of all Iraqis."
I was granted an interview with two officials, who refused to be named.
One of them consulted talking points that catalogued what the Embassy
had done for Iraqi employees: a Thanksgiving dinner, a recent
thirty-five-per-cent salary increase. Housing in the Green Zone could be
made available for a week at a time in critical cases, I was told,
though most Iraqis didn't want to be apart from their families. When I
asked about contingency plans for evacuation, the second official
refused to discuss it on security grounds, but he said, "If we reach
that point and have people in danger, the Ambassador would go to the
Secretary of State and ask that they be evacuated, and I think they
would do it." The department was reviewing the possibility of issuing
special immigrant visas.
To receive this briefing, I had passed through three security doors into
the Embassy's classified section, where there were no Iraqis and no
natural light; it seemed as if every molecule of Baghdad air had been
sealed off behind the last security door. The Embassy officials struck
me as decent, overworked people, yet I left the interview with a feeling
of shame. The problem lay not with the individuals but with the
institution and, beyond that, with the politics of the American project
in Iraq, which from the beginning has been conducted under the illusion
that controlling the message mattered more than the reality. A former
official at the Embassy told me, "When we say that the corridors of
power are insulated, is it that the officials aren't receiving the
information, or is it because the construct under which they're
operating doesn't even allow them to absorb it?" To admit that Iraqis
who work with Americans need to be evacuated would blow a hole in the
Administration's version of the war.
Several days after the interview at the Embassy, I had a more frank
conversation with an official there. "I don't know if it's fair to say,
'You work at an embassy of a foreign country, so that country has to
evacuate you,' " he said. "Do the Australians have a plan? Do the
Romanians? The Turks? The British?" He added, "If I worked at the
Hungarian Embassy in Washington, would the Hungarians evacuate me from
the United States?"
When I mentioned these remarks to Othman, he asked, "Would the Americans
behead an American working at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington?"
THE HEARTS OF YOUR ALLIES
In the summer of 2006, Iraqis were fleeing the country at the rate of
forty thousand per month. The educated middle class of Baghdad was
decamping to Jordan and Syria, taking with them the skills and the more
secular ideas necessary for rebuilding a destroyed society, leaving the
city to the religious militias-eastern Baghdad was controlled by the
poor and increasingly radical Shia, the western districts dominated by
Sunni insurgents. House by house, the capital was being ethnically cleansed.
By that time, Firas, Ali, and Ahmed had been working with the Americans
for several years. Their commitment and loyalty were beyond doubt. Just
going to work in the morning required an extraordinary ability to
disregard danger. Panic, Firas realized, could trap you: when the threat
came, you felt you were a dead man no matter where you turned, and your
mind froze and you sat at home waiting for them to come for you. In
order to function, Firas simply blocked out the fear. "My friends at
work became the only friends I have," he said. "My entertainment is at
work, my pleasure is at work, everything is at work." Firas and his
friends never imagined that the decision to leave Iraq would be forced
on them not by the violence beyond the Green Zone but from within the
After the bombing of the gold-domed Shia mosque in Samarra that
February, Sadr City had become the base for the Mahdi Army's roving
death squads. Ahmed's neighborhood fell under their complete control,
and his drive to work took him through numerous unfriendly-and
thorough-militia checkpoints. Strangers began to ask about him. A
falafel vender in Sadr City whose stall was often surrounded by Mahdi
Army alaasa warned Ahmed that his name had come up. On two occasions,
people he scarcely knew approached him and expressed concern about his
well-being. One evening, an American official named Oliver Moss, with
whom Ahmed was close, walked him out of the Embassy to the parking lot
and said, "Ahmed, I know you work for us, but if something happens to
you we won't be able to do anything for you." Ahmed asked for a cot in a
Green Zone trailer and was given the yes/no answer-equal parts personal
sympathy and bureaucratic delay-which sometimes felt worse than a flat
refusal. The chaos in Baghdad had created a landgrab for Green Zone
accommodations, and the Iraqi government was distributing coveted
apartments to friends of the political parties while evicting Iraqis who
worked with the Americans. The interpreters were distrusted and despised
even by officials of the new government that the Americans had helped
bring to power.
In April, a Shiite member of the parliament asked Ahmed to look into the
status of a Mahdi Army member who had been detained by the Americans.
Iraqis at the Embassy sometimes used their office to do small favors for
their compatriots; such gestures reminded them that they were serving
Iraq as well as America. But Ahmed sent his inquiry through the wrong
channel. His supervisor was on leave in the U.S., and so he sent an
e-mail to a reserve colonel in the political section. The colonel
refused to provide him with any information, and a couple of weeks
later, in May, Ahmed was summoned to talk to an agent from the regional
To the Iraqis, a summons of this type was frightening. Ahmed and his
friends had seen several colleagues report to the regional security
office and never appear at their desks again, with no explanation; one
had been turned over to the Iraqi police and was jailed for several
weeks. "Don't go. They're going to arrest you," Ali told Ahmed. "Just
quit. It's not worth it." Ahmed did not listen.
The agent, Barry Hale, who carried a Glock pistol, questioned Ahmed for
an hour about his contacts with Sadrists. The notion that Ahmed's job
required him to have contact with the Mahdi Army seemed foreign to Hale,
as did the need to have well-informed Iraqis in the political section of
the Embassy. According to an American official close to the case, Hale
had a general distrust of Iraqis and wanted to replace them with
Jordanians. Another official spoke of a "paranoia partly founded on
ignorance. If Ahmed wanted to hurt an American, he could have done it
very easily in the three years he worked with us."
Robert Ford, the political counsellor, spoke to top officials at the
Embassy to insure that Ahmed-whom several Americans described as the
best Iraqi employee they had worked with-would be "counselled" but not
fired. Everyone assumed that the case was closed. But over the summer,
after Ford's service in Baghdad ended, Hale started to pursue Ahmed
again. "It was a witch hunt," one of the officials said. "They wanted to
fire him and they were just looking for a reason. They decided he was a
threat." The irony of his situation was not lost on Ahmed: he was
suspected of giving information to a militia that would kill him
instantly if they knew where he worked.
In late July, Hale summoned Ahmed again. On Hale's desk, Ahmed saw a
thick file marked "Secret," next to a pair of steel handcuffs.
"Did you ever get a phone call from the Mahdi Army?" Hale asked.
"I'll be lucky if I get a phone call from them," Ahmed replied. "My
supervisor will be very happy."
The interrogation came down to one point: Hale insisted that Ahmed had
misled him by saying that the reserve colonel had "never answered"
Ahmed's inquiry, when in fact the colonel had sent back an e-mail asking
who had given Ahmed the detainee's name. Ahmed hadn't considered this an
answer to his question about the detainee's status, and therefore hadn't
mentioned it to Hale. This was his undoing.
When Ahmed returned to his desk, Firas and Ali embraced him and
congratulated him on escaping detention. Meanwhile, lower-ranking
Embassy officials began frantically calling and e-mailing colleagues in
Washington, some of whom tried to intervene on Ahmed's behalf. But by
then it was too late. The new Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and his
deputy were out of the country, and the official in charge of the
Embassy was Ford's replacement, Margaret Scobey, a new arrival in
Baghdad, who had no idea of Ahmed's value. Firas said of her, "She was
really not into the Iraqis in the office." Some Americans and Iraqis
described her as a notetaker for the Ambassador who sent oddly upbeat
reports back to Washington. Two days after the second interrogation,
Scobey signed off on Ahmed's termination, and ordered a junior officer
named Rebecca Fong to go down to Ahmed's office and, in front of his
tearful American and Iraqi colleagues, fire him.
Ahmed later told an American official, "I think the U.S. is still in a
war. I don't think you're going to win this war if you don't win the
hearts of your allies." The State Department refused to discuss the case
for reasons of privacy and security.
Ahmed's firing demoralized Americans and Iraqis alike. Fong transferred
out of the political section. For Firas, it meant that, no matter how
long he worked with the Americans and how many risks he took, he, too,
would ultimately be discarded. He began to tell himself, "My turn is
coming, my turn is coming"-a perverse echo of his mantra before the fall
of Saddam. The Iraqis now felt that, as Ali said, "Heaven doesn't want
us and Hell doesn't want us. Where will we go?" If the Americans were
turning against them, they had no friends at all.
Three days after Ahmed's departure, Scobey appeared in the Iraqis'
office to say that she was sorry but there was nothing she could have
done for Ahmed. Firas listened in disgust before bursting out, "All the
sacrifices, all the work, all the devotion mean nothing to you. We are
still terrorists in your eyes." When, a month later, Khalilzad met with
a large group of Iraqi employees to hear their concerns, Firas attended
reluctantly. After the Iraqis raised the possibility of immigrant visas
to the U.S., Khalilzad said, "We want the good Iraqi people to stay in
the country." An Iraqi replied, "If we're still alive." Firas, speaking
last, told the Ambassador, "We are tense all the time, we don't know
what we are doing, right or wrong. Some Iraqis are more afraid in the
Embassy than in the Red Zone"-that is, Baghdad. There was a ripple of
laughter among the Iraqis, and Khalilzad couldn't suppress a smile.
At this point, Firas knew that he would leave Iraq. Through the efforts
of Rebecca Fong and Oliver Moss-who pulled strings with counterparts in
European embassies in Baghdad-Ahmed, Firas, and Ali obtained visas to
Europe. By November, they were gone.
On the morning of October 13th, an Iraqi official with U.S.A.I.D. named
Yaghdan left his house in western Baghdad, in search of fuel for his
generator. He saw a scrap of paper lying by the garage door. It was a
torn sheet of copybook paper-the kind that his agency distributed to
schools around Iraq, with date and subject lines printed in English and
Arabic. The paper bore a message, in Arabic: "We will cut off heads and
throw them in the garbage." Nearby, against the garden fence, lay the
severed upper half of a small dog.
Yaghdan (who wanted his real name used) was a mild, conscientious
thirty-year-old from a family of struggling businessmen. Since taking a
job with the Americans, in 2003, he had been so cautious that, at first,
he couldn't imagine how his cover had been blown. Then he remembered:
Two weeks earlier, as he was showing his badge at the bridge offering
entry into the Green Zone, Yaghdan had noticed a man from his
neighborhood standing in the same line, watching him. The neighbor
worked as a special guard with a Shia militia and must have been the
alaas who betrayed him.
Yaghdan's request for a transfer to a post outside the country was never
answered. Instead, U.S.A.I.D. offered him a month's leave with pay or
residence for six months in the agency compound in the Green Zone, which
would have meant a long separation from his young wife. Yaghdan said, "I
thought, I should not be selfish and put myself as a priority. It wasn't
a happy decision." Within a week of the threat, Yaghdan and his wife
flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Yaghdan sent his résumé to several companies in Dubai, highlighting his
years of service with an American contractor and U.S.A.I.D. He got a
call from a legal office that needed an administrative assistant. "Did
you work in the U.S.?" the interviewer asked him. Yaghdan said that his
work had been in Iraq. "Oh, in Iraq . . ." He could feel the interviewer
pulling back. A man at another office said, "Oh, you worked against
Saddam? You betrayed Saddam? The American people are stealing Iraq."
Yaghdan, who is not given to bitterness, finally lost his cool: "No, the
Arab people are stealing Iraq!" He didn't get the job. He was
amazed-even in cosmopolitan Dubai, people loved Saddam, especially after
his botched execution, in late December. Yaghdan's résumé was an
encumbrance. Iraqis were considered bad Arabs, and Iraqis who worked
with the Americans were traitors. The slogans and illusions of Arab
nationalism, which had seemed to collapse with the regime of Saddam,
were being given a second life by the American failure in Iraq. What
hurt Yaghdan most was the looks that said, "You trusted the
Americans-and see what happened to you."
Yaghdan then contacted many American companies, thinking that they, at
least, would look favorably on his service. He wasn't granted a single
interview. The only work he could find was as a gofer in the office of a
Dubai cleaning company.
Yaghdan's Emirates visa expired in mid-January, and he had to leave the
country and renew the visa in Amman. I met him there. The Jordanians had
been turning away young Iraqis at the border and the airport for several
months, but they issued Yaghdan and his wife three-day visas, after
which they had to pay a daily fine, on top of hotel bills. After a
week's delay, the visas came through, but, upon returning to Dubai,
Yaghdan learned that the Emirates would no longer extend the visas of
Iraqis. A job offer as an administrative assistant came from a
university in Qatar, but the Qataris wouldn't grant him a visa without a
security clearance from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which was in
the hands of the Shia party whose militia had sent him the death threat.
He couldn't even become a refugee, which would have given him some
protection against deportation, because the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees had closed its Emirates office years ago.
Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job
offer-nearly impossible to obtain-or by marrying an American, so he
didn't bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and
would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. "It's like taking the
decision to commit suicide," he said.
While Yaghdan was in Dubai, news of his dilemma made its way through the
U.S.A.I.D. grapevine to Kirk Johnson, the young Arabic speaker who had
asked to be transferred to Falluja. By then, Johnson's life had been
turned upside down as well.
In Falluja, Johnson had supervised Iraqis who were clearing out blocked
irrigation canals along the Euphrates River. His job was dangerous and
seldom rewarding, but it gave him the sense of purpose that he had
sought in Iraq. Determined to experience as much as possible, he went
out several times a week in a Marine convoy to meet tribal sheikhs and
local officials. As he rode through Falluja's lethal streets, Johnson
eyed every bag of trash and parked car for hidden bombs, and practiced
swatting away imaginary grenades. After a local sniper shot several
marines, Johnson's anxiety rose even higher.
In December, 2005, after twelve exhausting months in Iraq, during which
he lost forty pounds, Johnson went on leave and met his parents for a
Christmas vacation in the Dominican Republic. In the middle of the
night, Johnson rose unconscious from his hotel bed and climbed onto a
ledge outside the second-floor window. A night watchman noticed him
staring at an unfinished concrete apartment complex across the road. The
night before, the sight of the building had triggered his fear of the
sniper, and he had instinctively dropped to the floor of his room.
Standing on the ledge, he shouted something and then fell fifteen feet.
Johnson tore open his jaw and forehead and broke his nose, teeth, and
wrists. He required numerous surgeries on his shattered face, and stayed
in the hospital for several weeks. But it was much longer before he
could accept that he would not rejoin the marines and Iraqis he had left
in Falluja. There were rumors in Iraq that he had been drunk and was
trying to avoid returning. Back home in Illinois, healing in his
childhood bed, he dreamed every night that he was in Iraq, unable to
save people, or else in mortal peril himself.
In January, 2006, Paul Bremer came through Chicago to promote his book,
"My Year in Iraq." Johnson sat in one of the front rows, ready to
challenge Bremer's upbeat version of the reconstruction, but during the
question period Bremer avoided the young man with the bandaged face who
was frantically waving his arms, which were still in casts.
Johnson moved to Boston, but he kept thinking about his failure to
return to Iraq. One day, he heard the news about Yaghdan, whom he had
known in Baghdad, and that night he barely slept. It suddenly occurred
to him that this was an injustice he could address. He could send money;
he could alert journalists and politicians. He wrote a detailed account
of Yaghdan's situation and sent it to his congressman, Dennis Hastert.
But Hastert's office, which was reeling from the Mark Foley scandal and
the midterm elections, told Johnson that it could not help Yaghdan.
Johnson wrote an op-ed article calling for asylum for Yaghdan and others
like him, and on December 15th it ran in the Los Angeles Times. A
U.S.A.I.D. official in Baghdad sent it around to colleagues. Then
Johnson began to hear from Iraqis.
First, it was people he knew-former colleagues in desperate
circumstances like Yaghdan's. Iraqis forwarded his article to other
Iraqis, and he started to compile a list of names; by January he was
getting e-mails from strangers with subject lines like "Can you help me
Please?" and "I want to be on the list." An Iraqi woman who had worked
for the Coalition Provisional Authority attached a letter of
recommendation written in 2003 by Bernard Kerik, then Iraq's acting
Minister of the Interior. It proclaimed, "Your courage to support the
Coalition forces has sent home an irrefutable message: that terror will
not rule, that liberty will triumph, and that the seeds of freedom will
be planted into the hearts of the great citizens of Iraq." The woman was
now a refugee in Amman.
A former U.S.A.I.D. procurement agent named Ibrahim wrote that he was
stranded in Egypt after having paid traffickers twelve thousand dollars
to smuggle him from Baghdad to Dubai to Mumbai to Alexandria, with the
goal of reaching Europe. When the Egyptian police figured out the
scheme, Ibrahim took shelter in a friend's flat in a Cairo slum. The
Egyptians, wary of a popular backlash against rising Shia influence in
the Middle East, were denying Iraqis legal status there. Ibrahim didn't
know where to go next: in addition to his immigration troubles, he had
an untreated brain tumor.
By the first week of February, Johnson's list had grown to more than a
hundred names. Working tirelessly, he had found a way to channel his
desire to do something for Iraq. He assembled the information on a
spreadsheet, and on February 5th he took it with him on a bus to
Washington-along with Yaghdan's threat letter and a picture of the
Toward the end of January, I travelled to Damascus. Iraqis were
tolerated by Syria, which opened its doors in the name of Arab
brotherhood. Yet Syria offered them no prospect of earning a living: few
Iraqis could get work permits.
About a million Iraqis were now in Syria. Every morning that I visited,
there were long lines outside the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees office in central Damascus. Forty-five thousand Iraqis had
officially registered as refugees, and more were signing up every day,
amid reports that the Syrian regime was about to tighten its visa policy
and had begun turning people back at the border.
One chilly night, I went to Sayyida Zainab, a neighborhood centered
around the shrine of the sister of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet and
the central martyr of Shiism. This had become an Iraqi Shia district,
and on the main street were butcher shops and kebab stands that reminded
me of commercial streets in Baghdad. There were pictures of Shia
martyrs, and also of Moqtada al-Sadr, outside the real-estate offices,
some of which, I was told, were fronts for brothels. (Large numbers of
Iraqi women make their living in Syria as prostitutes.) Shortly before
midnight, buses from Baghdad began to pull into a parking lot where boys
were still up, playing soccer. One bus had a shattered windshield from
gunfire at the start of its journey. A minibus driver told me that the
trip took fourteen hours, including a long wait at the border, and that
the road through Iraq was menaced by insurgents, criminal gangs, and
American patrols. And yet some Iraqis who had run out of money in
Damascus hired the driver to take them back to Baghdad the same night.
"No one is left there," he said. "Only those who are too poor to leave,
and those with a bad omen on their heads, who will be killed in one of
three ways-kidnapping, car bomb, or militias."
In another Damascus neighborhood, I met a family of four that had just
arrived from Baghdad after receiving a warning from insurgents to
abandon their house. They had settled in a three-room apartment and were
huddled around a kerosene heater. They were middle-class people who had
left almost everything behind-the mother had sold her gold and jewelry
to pay for plane tickets to Damascus-and the son and daughter hadn't
been able to finish school. The daughter, Zamzam, was seventeen, and in
the past few months she had been seeing corpses in the streets on her
way to school, some of them eaten by dogs because no one dared to take
them away. On days when there was fighting in her neighborhood, Zamzam
said, walking to school felt like a death wish. Her laptop computer had
a picture of an American flag as its screen saver, but it also had
recordings of insurgent ballads in praise of a famous Baghdad sniper.
She was an energetic, ambitious girl, but her dark eyes had the haunted
look of a much older woman.
I spent a couple of hours walking with the family around the souk and
the grand Umayyad Mosque in the old city center. The parents strolled
arm in arm-enjoying, they said, a ritual that had been impossible in
Baghdad for the past two years. I left them outside a theatre where a
comedy featuring an all-Iraqi cast was playing to packed houses of
refugees. The play was called "Homesick."
In the past few months, Western and Arab governments announced that they
would no longer honor Iraqi passports issued after the 2003 invasion,
since the passport had been so shoddily produced that it was subject to
widespread forgery. This was the first passport many Iraqis had ever
owned, and it was now worthless. Iraqis with Saddam-era passports were
also out of luck, because the Iraqi government had cancelled them. A new
series of passports was being printed, but the Ministry of the Interior
had ordered only around twenty thousand copies, an Iraqi official told
me, far too few to meet the need-which meant that obtaining a valid
passport, like buying gas or heating oil, would become subject to
black-market influences. In Baghdad, Othman told me that a new passport
would cost him six hundred dollars, paid to a fixer with connections at
the passport offices. The Ministry of the Interior refused to allow
Iraqi Embassies to print the new series, so refugees outside Iraq who
needed valid passports would have to return to the country they had fled
or pay someone a thousand dollars to do it for them.
Between October, 2005, and September, 2006, the United States admitted
two hundred and two Iraqis as refugees, most of them from the years
under Saddam. Last year, the Bush Administration increased the allotment
to five hundred. By the end of 2006, there were almost two million
Iraqis living as refugees outside their country-most of them in Syria
and Jordan. American policy held that these Iraqis were not refugees,
that they would go back to their country as soon as it was stabilized.
The U.S. Embassies in Damascus and Amman continued to turn down almost
all visa applications from Iraqis. So the fastest-growing refugee crisis
in the world remained hidden, receiving little attention other than in a
few reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch and Refugees
Then, in early January, U.N.H.C.R. sent out an appeal for sixty million
dollars for the support and eventual resettlement of Iraqi refugees. On
January 16th, the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on refugees,
chaired by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, held hearings on
Iraqi refugees, with a special focus on Iraqis who had worked for the
U.S. government. Pressure in Congress and the media began to build, and
the Administration scrambled to respond. When an Iraqi employee of the
Embassy was killed on January 11th, and one from U.S.A.I.D. on February
14th, statements of condolence were sent out by Ambassador Khalilzad and
the chief administrator of U.S.A.I.D.-gestures that few could remember
In early February, the State Department announced the formation of a
task force to deal with the problem of Iraqi refugees. A colleague of
Kirk Johnson's at U.S.A.I.D., who had been skeptical that Johnson's
efforts would achieve anything, wrote to him, "Interesting what a
snowball rolled down a hill can cause. This is your baby. Good going."
On February 14th, at a press conference at the State Department, members
of the task force declared a new policy: the United States would fund
eighteen million dollars of the U.N.H.C.R. appeal, and it would "plan to
process expeditiously some seven thousand Iraqi refugee referrals,"
which meant that two or three thousand Iraqis might be admitted to the
U.S. by the end of the fiscal year. Finally, the Administration would
seek legislation to create a special immigrant visa for Iraqis who had
worked for the U.S. Embassy.
During the briefing, Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State
for Population, Refugees, and Migration, insisted, "There was really
nothing that was indicating there was any significant issue in terms of
outflow until-I would say the first real indication began to reach us
three or four months ago." Speaking of Iraqi employees, she added, "The
numbers of those that have actually been seeking either movement out of
the country or requesting assistance have been-our own Embassy has said
it is a very small number." Sauerbrey put it at less than fifty.
The excuses were unconvincing, but the stirrings of action were
encouraging. When Johnson, wearing the only suit he owned, took his list
to Washington and dropped it off at the State Department and the
U.N.H.C.R. office, the response was welcoming. But he pressed officials
for details on the fates of specific individuals: Would Yaghdan be able
to register as a refugee in Dubai, where there was no U.N.H.C.R. office,
before he was forced to go back to Iraq? How could Ibrahim, trapped in
Egypt without legal travel documents, qualify for a visa before his
brain tumor killed him? Would Iraqis who had paid ransom to kidnappers
be barred entry under the "material support" clause of the Patriot Act?
(One Embassy employee already had been.) How would Iraqis who had no
Kirk Johnson to help them-the military interpreters, the Embassy staff,
the contractors, the drivers-be able to sign up as refugees or
candidates for special immigrant visas? Would the U.S. government seek
them out? Would they have to flee the country and find a U.N.H.C.R.
Thanks in part to Johnson's list, Washington was paying attention.
Privately, though, a former U.S.A.I.D. colleague told Johnson that his
actions would send the message "that it's game over" in Iraq, and
America would end up with a million and a half asylum seekers. Johnson
feared that the ingrained habit of giving yes/no answers might lower the
pressure without solving the problem. His list kept growing after he had
delivered it to the U.S. government, and the desperation of those
already on it grew as well. By mid-March, Iraqis on the list still had
no mechanism for applying to immigrate. According to the State
Department, a humanitarian visa for Ibrahim would take up to six months.
And Yaghdan's situation was just as dire now as it was when Johnson had
written his op-ed. "No matter what is said by the Administration, if
Yaghdan isn't being helped, then the government is not responding,"
Johnson told me.
For him, it was a simple matter. "This is the brink right now, where our
partners over there are running for their lives," he said. "I defy
anyone to give me the counter-argument for why we shouldn't let these
people in." He quoted something that President Gerald Ford once said
about his decision to admit a hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese
after the fall of Saigon: "To do less would have added moral shame to
In 2005, Al Jazeera aired a typically heavy-handed piece about the
American evacuation from Saigon, in April, 1975, rebroadcasting the
famous footage of children and old people being pushed back by marines
from the Embassy gates, and kicked or punched as they tried to climb
onto helicopters. The message for Iraqis working with Americans was
clear, and when some of those who worked at U.S.A.I.D. saw the program
they were horrified. The next day at work, a small group of them met to
talk about it. "Al Jazeera has their own propaganda. Don't believe it,"
said Ibrahim, the Iraqi who is now hiding out in Cairo.
Hussein, the go-between in southern Iraq, had also begun to think about
Vietnam. He had heard that America had left the Vietnamese behind, but
he couldn't believe that the same thing would happen in Iraq. "We might
be given a good chance to leave with them," he said. "I think about
that, because history is telling me that they always have a moral
obligation." To Hussein, the obligation was mutual, because he still
felt indebted to the Americans for his freedom. I asked him what he
would do if he found himself abandoned. Hussein thought about it, then
said, "If I reach this point, and I am still alive when I see moral
obligation taking the incorrect course, I will say, 'I paid my debt. I
am free.' "
At the end of the Vietnam War, Frank Snepp was the C.I.A.'s chief
analyst at the American Embassy in Saigon. His 1977 book about the last
days of the Vietnam War, "Decent Interval," describes how the willful
ignorance and political illusions of top U.S. officials prevented any
serious planning for an evacuation of America's Vietnamese allies.
Thousands were left to the mercy of the Communists. The book contains a
photograph of the author, thirty-one at the time, standing on the bridge
of the U.S.S. Denver in the South China Sea, three days after being
evacuated from Saigon by helicopter. He is leaning against the rail, his
tan, handsome face drawn taut as he stares slightly downward. Recently,
I asked Snepp what he had been thinking when the picture was taken.
"I was overwhelmed with guilt," he said. "I kept hearing the voices on
the C.I.A. radios of our agents in the field, our Vietnamese friends we
wouldn't be able to rescue. And I had to understand how I had been made
a party to this. I had been brought up in the Old South, in a chivalric
tradition that comes out of the Civil War-you do not abandon your own.
And that's exactly what I had done. It hasn't left me to this day."
No conquering enemy army is days away from taking Baghdad; the city is
slowly breaking up into smaller, isolated enclaves, and America's Iraqi
allies are being executed one by one. It's hard to imagine the American
presence in Iraq ending with a dramatic helo lift from a Green Zone
landing pad. But, in some ways, the unlikelihood of a spectacularly
conclusive finale makes the situation of the Iraqis more perilous than
that of the South Vietnamese. It's easier for the U.S. government to
leave them to their fate while telling itself that "the good Iraqis" are
needed to build the new Iraq.
American institutions in Vietnam were just as unresponsive as they are
in Iraq, but, on an individual level, Americans did far more to evacuate
their Vietnamese counterparts. In Saigon they had girlfriends, wives,
friends, whereas Americans and Iraqis have established only work
relationships, which end when the Americans rotate out after six months
or a year. In the wide-open atmosphere of Saigon, many officials,
including Snepp, broke rules or risked their lives to save people close
to them. Americans in Baghdad don't have such discipline problems. A
former Embassy official pointed out that cell phones and e-mail connect
officials in Iraq to their bosses there or in Washington around the
clock. "When you can always connect, you can always pass the buck," he
said. For all their technology, the Americans in Baghdad know far less
about the Iraqis than those in Saigon knew about the Vietnamese.
"Intelligence is the first key to empathy," Snepp said.
I asked Snepp what he would say to Americans in Iraq today. "If they
want to keep their conscience clean, they better start making lists of
people they must help," he said. "They should also not be cautious in
questioning their superiors, and that's a very hard thing to do in a
Richard Armitage, who was Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell
during the first years of the Iraq war, served as a naval officer in
Vietnam. In the last days of that war, he returned as a civilian, on a
mission to destroy military assets before they fell into North
Vietnamese hands. He arrived too late, and instead turned his energy to
the evacuation of South Vietnamese sailors and their families. Armitage
led a convoy of barely seaworthy boats, carrying twenty thousand people,
a thousand miles across the South China Sea to Manila-the first stop on
their journey to the United States.
When I met Armitage recently, at his office in Arlington, Virginia, he
was not confident that Iraqis would be similarly resettled. "I guarantee
you no one's thinking about it now, because it's so fatalistic and you'd
be considered sort of a traitor to the President's policy," he said. "I
don't see us taking them in this time, because, notwithstanding what we
may owe people, you're not going to bring in large numbers of Arabs to
the United States, given the fact that for the last six years the
President has scared the pants off the American public with fears of
Even at this stage of the war, Armitage said, officials at the White
House retain an "agnosticism about the size of the problem." He added,
"The President believes so firmly that he is President for just this
mission-and there's something religious about it-that it will succeed,
and that kind of permeates. I just take him at his word these days. I
think it's very improbable that he'll be successful."
I was in Baghdad when the Administration announced its new security
plan-including an effort to stabilize Baghdad with a "surge" of twenty
thousand additional troops. I spent a day with Lieutenant Colonel Steven
Miska, who commands a small American base surrounded by a large Iraqi
one in the old-line Shia district of Kadhimiya. Everywhere we went,
Iraqi civilians asked him when the surge would begin. Two dozen men
hanging out at a sidewalk tea shop seemed to have the new strategy
confused with the Iraq Study Group Report; I took the mix-up to mean
that they were desperate for any possible solution. A Shia potentate
named Sheikh Muhammad Baqr gave me his version of the new plan over
lunch at his house: the Americans were trying to separate the ten per
cent of the population that belonged to extremist militias-whether Shia
or Sunni-from what he called the "silent majority." If families evicted
from mixed areas could be convinced to return to their homes, and if
unemployed young men could be put to work, the plan had a chance of
restoring confidence in the Americans. The Sheikh warned, "In six months
you will have to see this plan work, or else the Iraqi people will tell
the Americans to find another venue." The Sheikh had even less faith in
the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which he called a
collection of "sectarian movements" brought to power by American folly.
"We don't need democracy," he said. "We need General Pinochet in Chile
or General Franco in Spain. After they clear the country, we'll have
Lieutenant Colonel Miska, for his part, described the security plan as
an attempt to get Americans off the big bases and into Iraqi
neighborhoods, where they would occupy small combat outposts on the
fault lines of sectarian conflicts and, for the first time, make the
protection of civilians a central goal. The new plan represented a
repudiation of the strategy that the Administration had pursued for the
past two years-the handover of responsibility to Iraqi security forces
as Americans pulled out of the cities. President Bush had chosen a new
commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who recently oversaw the
writing of the Army and Marine Corps's new counter-insurgency manual.
Petraeus has surrounded himself with a brain trust of counter-insurgency
experts: Colonel H. R. McMaster, who two years ago executed a nearly
identical strategy in the northern city of Tal Afar; Colonel Peter
Mansoor; and David Kilcullen, an Australian strategist working at the
State Department. Bush named Timothy Carney, a retired ambassador, to be
his reconstruction czar in Iraq; Carney had left the Coalition
Provisional Authority in disgust after seeing Bremer make mistake after
mistake. After four years of displaying resolve while the war was being
lost, the President has turned things over to a group of soldiers and
civilians who have been steadfast critics of his strategy. It is almost
certainly too late.
In Baghdad, among Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, it's impossible
not to want to give the new strategy a try. The alternative, as Iraqis
constantly point out, is a much greater catastrophe. "I'm still hoping
Bush's new plan can do something," Othman told me. In the weeks after
the surge was announced, there were anecdotal reports of Shia and Sunni
families returning to their homes. But even if this tentative progress
continues, three major obstacles remain. The first is the breakdown of
U.S. ground forces, in manpower and equipment; it isn't clear that the
strategy can be sustained for more than six months-nowhere near enough
time to repair the physical and social destruction of Baghdad.
The second obstacle was described to me by an international official who
has spent the past three years in Iraq. "The success of the American
strategy is based on a premise that is fundamentally flawed," he said.
"The premise is that the U.S. and Iraqi governments are working toward
the same goal. It's simply not the case." Shia politicians, the official
said, want "to hold on to their majority as long as they can." Their
interest isn't democracy but power. Meanwhile, Sunni politicians want
"to say no to everything," the official said; the insurgency is
Finally, there is the collapse of political support at home. Most
Americans have lost faith in the leadership and conduct of the war, and
they want to be rid of it. More important than all the maneuverings in
Congress, at the White House, and among the Presidential candidates is
the fact that nobody wants to deal with Iraq anymore. The columnist
Charles Krauthammer, the most ardent of neoconservative hawks, has found
someone to blame for the war's failure: the Iraqis. He recently wrote,
"We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war." John Edwards, the
Democratic Presidential candidate, is also tired of Iraqis. "We've done
our part, and now it's time for them to step up to the plate," he
recently told this magazine. "When they're doing it to each other, and
America's not there and not fomenting the situation, I think the odds
are better of the place stabilizing." America is pulling away from Iraq
in the fitful, irritable manner of someone trying to wake up from an
unpleasant sleep. On my last day in Baghdad, I had lunch with an Embassy
official, and as we were leaving the restaurant he suddenly said, "Do
you think this is all going to seem like a dream? Is it just going to be
a fever dream that we'll wake up from and say, 'We got into this crazy
war, but now it's over and we never have to think about Iraq again'?" If
so, part of our legacy will be thousands of Iraqis who, because they
joined the American effort, can no longer live in their own country.
O thman and Laith are still in Baghdad. Earlier this month, Othman spent
more than two thousand dollars on passports for his mother, his two
younger brothers, and himself. He is hoping to move the family to Syria.
Laith wants to find a job in Kurdistan.
Firas, Ali, and Ahmed are now in Sweden. All three of them would have
preferred to go to America. Ali had spent his childhood in the United
States; Ahmed was fascinated with American politics; Firas never felt
more at home than he had on their training trip, listening to jazz in
Greenwich Village. Like all Iraqis who worked with Americans, they spoke
in American accents, using American idioms. Ahmed delighted in using
phrases like "from the horse's mouth" and "hung out to dry."
I asked Firas why he hadn't tried to get a visa to the United States.
"And what would I do with it?" he said.
"Ask for asylum."
"Do you think they would give me an asylum in the U.S.? Never."
"For the U.S. to give an asylum for an Iraqi, it means they have failed
This wasn't entirely true. Recently, Iraqis who made it to America have
begun filing petitions for asylum, and, because they undoubtedly face a
reasonable fear of harm back home, a few of them have been accepted. A
much larger number of Iraqis are still waiting to learn their fates:
U.S.A.I.D. employees who jumped ship on training trips to Washington;
Fulbright scholars who have been informed by the State Department that
they have to go back to Iraq after their two- or three-year scholarships
end, even if a job or another degree program is available to them in
America. The U.S. government, for which Firas worked for three and a
half years, had given him ample reason to believe that he could never
become an American. Still, if he had somehow made it here, there is a
chance that he could have stayed.
Instead, he is trying to become a Swede. I met him one recent winter
morning in Malmö, a city of eighteenth-century storefronts and modern
industrial decay at the southern tip of Sweden, just across the Öresund
Strait from Copenhagen. He was waiting to hear the result of his asylum
petition while living with Ahmed in a refugee apartment block that was
rapidly filling up with Iraqis. Since the war began, nearly twenty
thousand Iraqis had arrived in the country. Firas was granted asylum in
Sweden amazed Firas: the silence of passengers on trains; the
intolerance for smoking; the motorists that wait for you to cross the
street, as if they were trying to embarrass you with courtesy. When I
joked that he would be bored living here, he laughed grimly and said,
"Good. I want to be like other people-normal. How long before I can be
afraid or shocked? There is nothing that makes me afraid or shocked
We walked from the train station to the Turning Torso, a new apartment
tower, designed by Santiago Calatrava, that twists ninety degrees on its
axis as it rises fifty-four stories into the slate-gray sky, and drank
Swedish Pilsners at the Torso Bar and Lounge. When the Americans came to
Iraq, four years ago, Firas felt that he could finally begin his life.
Now, at thirty-five, he was starting over yet again.
I asked him if he felt betrayed by America.
"I have this nature-I don't expect a lot from people," Firas said. "Not
betrayed, no, not disappointed. I can never blame the Americans alone.
It's the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the
Americans, under the American eye." I was about to say that he deserved
better, but Firas was lost in thought. "To this moment," he said, "I
dream about America."