Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Cooperators with US forces in Iraq stuck in limbo

AP , IRBIL, IRAQ

US soldiers gave him the nickname "Allen." Once, a wounded Humvee gunner fell onto his lap. Another time, interpreter Ammar Abdul Rasool Abaas gave testimony that helped convict a US sergeant of killing a bound detainee.

For more than two years, Abaas worked alongside US troops. His decision to take the job had nothing to do with pro-US sentiments. He said he needed the money to support his family.

But insurgents branded him a collaborator who should die.

Now Abaas -- who quit his post and fled the main war zone because of the threats -- wants to restart his life in the US. So far, he has made it only as far as Iraq's northern Kurdish region, with a thicket of bureaucracy and uncertainties still ahead.

Abaas' limbo represents the tale of thousands of other Iraqi helpers for Western military forces and groups who seek to leave their war-battered country.

The quandary over how wide to open the door is leaving lawmakers in the West struggling with competing agendas: a sense of moral obligation to the Iraqi aides but worries about a flood of newcomers. The US -- with by far the largest foreign presence in Iraq -- has come under the most direct criticism from rights groups for keeping a tight lid.

Washington originally planned to resettle 7,000 Iraqis this year. It has since been reduced to 2,000 -- with processing time of eight to 10 months.

The House of Representatives proposed a four-year plan in May to accept as many as 60,000 Iraqis who worked for at least a year with US or UN-affiliated groups.

"I have offered everything," said Abaas, a 39-year-old Shiite Muslim who fled with his family to Irbil, where he fixes cars for a living.

Abaas has applied for Iraqi passports for his family of five, including two-year-old twin boys. Then he plans to travel to Syria to apply with the UN refugee agency, which refers cases to US officials.

But Syria -- struggling with more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees -- now demands visas for Iraqis in a move that could severely complicate one of the first steps to securing passage to the West.

Abaas could remain in Iraq and try to push his case with US officials.

But the threats make any trip outside the Kurdish area too much of a risk, he believes.

Soon after Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, Abaas got a job as a vehicle mechanic with a US contractor in Baghdad's Green Zone. Two men visited Abaas' wife, Samah.

"He's a good guy," they told her, Abaas said. "But we took his photo when he was going to work. Tell him to quit. We'll give him five days. If he doesn't quit, we'll kill him."

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