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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

When Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency, he spoke eloquently about America’s moral obligation to Iraqis working for US forces in their country. “We must keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us,” he said in a 2007 campaign speech.

“One tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stand with America – the interpreters, embassy workers and subcontractors – are being targeted for assassination. Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq. Because what’s at stake is bigger than the war – it’s our global leadership.”

The war Obama inherited from George W. Bush officially ended this week when US soldiers rolled up the flag of military forces in Iraq in a low-key ceremony attended by US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta. The remaining US soldiers will be out by Dec. 31. They leave behind thousands of the faithful Iraqis Obama described on the campaign trail.

They are still targets, seen by anti-American militants as traitors or collaborators.

A special program set up in 2008 provided for an annual quota of 5,000 visas for Iraqis at risk. Fewer than a quarter have been allotted so far. Thousands of applications are pending, stuck in a “nightmarish, dysfunctional screening process,” in the words of Bob Carey, a resettlement policy expert with the International Rescue Committee. What’s worse, he said in an interview, there is no contingency plan to protect Iraqis at risk after the last American soldier leaves. “Are they being abandoned, betrayed?”

There is a certain symmetry to the beginning and the end of the war. At the beginning, there was little or no planning for the post-combat phase. At the end, there is no post-withdrawal planning to get US-affiliated Iraqis to safety quickly if the need arises. There are precedents for such operations.

In 1996, the administration of Bill Clinton airlifted 6,600 Kurds who were under attack by Saddam Hussein’s army to the Pacific island of Guam, where they went through the asylum process in less than half the time it usually takes.

Just how much risk is there for the estimated 70,000 who worked for the US military, embassy and American sub-contractors? The List Project, an advocacy group set up by Kirk Johnson, a former official of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has begun compiling a threat spreadsheet. A typical entry, from November 24: “Iraqi who worked with the US contacts TLP, explaining that he had been threatened outside his home by an Iraqi policeman, who told him that he would be beheaded because he was a disloyal traitor and an American puppet.”

A stable Iraq?
A police officer threatening a fellow Iraqi with beheading does not quite fit into the post-US Iraq that Obama described in a speech to troops at Fort Hood to mark the end of the war. The United States, he said, was leaving behind a stable country. How stable it will be remains to be seen. Doubts go beyond refugee advocacy groups and human rights organisations.

In one of the last press briefings by a senior US military officer, Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, the deputy commander of US forces in Iraq, listed a string of difficulties – Iranian-backed militias, violent extremists, tensions between Sunnis and Shias and between Arabs and Kurds.

One gauge of how stable Iraqis will see their country after the last US soldier leaves will be the rate of return of an estimated 1.6 million who sought refuge in neighbouring countries from the sectarian violence uncorked by the US invasion in 2003. Even though violence has subsided substantially from its peak in 2007, there has been no rush of returnees. Neither has there been much change, according to refugee organisations, in the number of internal refugees – people driven from their homes by successive waves of ethnic cleansing in mixed neighbourhoods.

Taken together, this makes for more than three million people – the largest population displacement in modern Middle East history. It is a consequence of the war barely noticed in the United States. That, too, goes for the number of Iraqis killed since the US invasion. Estimates vary but the lowest figure given by the Iraq Body Count is 104,080 – more than 23 times the 4,500 US troops killed in Iraq who are mentioned in virtually every US news story on the war.

Once the last US soldier is out and Iraq fades from the media spotlight, humanitarian workers fear that the already steep uphill battle to focus Western minds on the plight of Iraqi victims of the war will become even more difficult.

As Maxwell Quqa, who runs the Sponsor Iraqi Children Foundation, an organisation that helps Iraqi orphans and street children, puts it: “What we face is compassion fatigue.”

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Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist.