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Tue 9 Aug 2011 08:22 AM

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Iraqi asylum seekers fret over US withdrawal

Iraqis working for the US army fear death if refugee visas don’t come through

Iraqi asylum seekers fret over US withdrawal
US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of the year

After almost two years of waiting to resettle in the United States following four years service as a US army interpreter in Iraq, Mohammed is starting to believe he might have to rethink his plans.

He fears he could be left behind and militiamen will eventually catch up to him if US troops withdraw by a scheduled deadline at year end before he is accepted into a program offering resettlement to Iraqis.

"I don't have a Plan B and don't know what to do," Mohammed said, requesting that his full name not be used.

"If the Americans gonna leave Iraq and I stay here, man, the militias gonna kill us." he said in a strong American accent.

Mohammed has already moved house twice in two years over security fears. He used to mask his face when he was out with the US army on missions but he worries his identity will be disclosed after any planned US withdrawal.

Like thousands of other Iraqis, he hopes to land a US refugee visa to escape the violence that still makes his home a dangerous place even though the conflict has eased since the bloodier days four years ago.

Iraq and the United States are negotiating over whether some US soldiers will stay as trainers when a security agreement ends this year and American troops are due to pullout more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

At the height of sectarian violence between 2006-2008 those who worked with the US military army or civilian organisations were seen as collaborators and traitors. Mohammed says some still believe people like him should be killed.

Issam, another Iraqi who worked for a US non-governmental organization, said his life is on hold because he has prepared himself and his family for departure. But months of stalling are taking their toll.

"There are thousands of us living in such a worrying situation," Issam said, asking that only his first name be used for security reasons.

Now, there is an added delay of more security screenings for applicants.

On May 25, 2011 the FBI arrested two Iraqi citizens in Kentucky who entered the States in 2009, accused of participating in roadside bomb attacks in Iraq against the US army and sending explosives and missiles to Iraq for the use against Americans, a statement on the FBI website said.

Since then, US officials have begun re-screening on 59,000 Iraqis who had already left for the United States and that will also cover those who are still waiting in Iraq.

"We cannot postpone implementation or delay security screening procedures that are effective, but those procedures inevitably take time and have slowed processing," Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration said last month.

Issam and others hope to join over 4.7 million Iraqis who have left their homes since 2003, in what the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the Middle East since 1948.

Iraq is only just starting to rebuild after years of war and sanctions before that, and the country needs investment in just about every sector. But reconstruction is slow, and even basic services such as power and water supplies are still struggling.

Iraq and Afghanistan, both hosting tens of thousands of US troops, are priorities for the refugee resettlement program. At the top of the list for visas are those whose lives are at risk because they have worked for the US government, military or US-based organisations.

"The United States recognizes a special responsibility to Iraqis with US affiliations and has developed several programs that can facilitate their access to consideration for resettlement in the United States," a spokesman for the US Embassy in Baghdad told Reuters in an email.

But for people like Ahmed, another interpreter and also a reporter who once worked for Western media after Saddam's fall, the slowdown looks increasingly like a way to leave them behind.

"Perhaps I have to find a way to face a vague future in Iraq," said Ahmed, who has three children and lives in eastern Baghdad. "I just hope I won't be betrayed."

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