On September 30, right before the US government shutdown took place, the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set to expire. EPIC has been working closely with the SIV program since it was instated in 2008. This program granted special immigration status to Iraqis who worked with the United States during the war. This life saving legislation had the potential to be lost among all of the other issues that Congress was tackling prior to the US government shutdown. However, on the night of September 30, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to extend the bill for another three months.
Congress should vote to extend the SIV program again at the end of December. However, the US government needs to take more proactive steps beyond extending the SIV program. At the time of the program’s creation, 25,000 visas were allotted to Iraqi interpreters, contractors, and others who worked with American soldiers. Nevertheless, in the past five years, only 8,000 visas have been approved with approximately 2,000 more awaiting approval, as applicants face a waiting period of several years.
Due to their previous affiliation with the US these Iraqis face increased danger towards their lives and their families. Moreover, they face decreased job opportunities as resentment towards their former affiliation with the US grows. It is the responsibility of the United States government to honor our obligation to these individuals who aided us. The United States government should work with a renewed fervor and commitment to helping these Iraqis obtain their visas to the United States. Rhetoric will never be enough to assist the Iraqis who helped us during the war; the government needs to work more efficiently to approve visas for those eligible for the SIV program, rather than leaving their applications pending for months or years on end.
EPIC recently spoke with Kirk Johnson, the founder of the List Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for Iraqis whose lives are in danger because of their work with the United States and are seeking refuge in our country. Look for the next episode of our podcast, Iraq Matters, to listen to our conversation and learn more about the dangers Iraqis face in their country and the obstacles to the SIV program.
While extending the SIV program for three months was a positive step, the U.S. needs to be encouraged to continue this program until we fulfill our promise of 25,000 visas, and to put forth more effort to approve visas more quickly for Iraqis seeking refuge in the United States. President Obama must put more pressure on the agencies which hand out visas. At the current rate, it would take 17 more years to hand out the allotted 25,000 visas. If you have not yet done so, please take the time to sign EPIC’s petition urging the Obama administration to put Iraq back on the agenda.
A recent UN report released on November 29, 2013, revealed that over half of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees are under the age of eighteen. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warns of the risk of a lost generation of Syrian children, as they face the harrowing effects of the Syrian conflict. These children are suffering psychological traumas and are often living in fractured families or with no families at all. On top of that, many children and youth must work in order to support their families, and countless of them do not have access to education. The largest populations of child refugees are in Jordan and Lebanon, with staggering numbers of 291,238 and 385,007 Syrian children respectively. In Iraq, which has a Syrian refugee population of over 200,000, there are 77,125 child refugees.
One of the biggest problems that they face is a lack of educational opportunities. International aid agencies, in collaboration with the Kurdistan Regional Government, are currently doing everything they can to enroll as many Syrian children in school as possible. In September, UNICEF worked with Iraqi children from the Classical School of the Medes in Sulaymaniyah to raise money through community events to buy school supplies, such as uniforms, books, and backpacks for school children in the Arbat refugee camp. In mid-November, UNICEF, UNESCO, and UNHCR came together to launch the “Back to School” campaign, seeking to create awareness surrounding the importance of a safe and protective learning environment for Syrian refugees in camps.
However, despite efforts such as these, there is still a huge gap in access to education for Syrian children. According to UN estimates, as much as 77% of Syrian school-aged children in Iraq are not enrolled in school. One obstacle that Syrian children face is that they come into Iraq while the school year is already underway, making it difficult for them to enroll. While the Kurdistan Regional Government has asked that all schools in the region allow school-aged refugees to register at any time throughout the year, this does not necessarily mean that these children and youth will enroll. Another challenge that prevents Syrian children from attending school in the Kurdistan Region is the lack of classes instructed in Arabic, leaving few spots compared to the large number of Syrian children. Organizations such as Mercy Corps and Peace Winds Japan have been working to build schools within the camps themselves. However, these schools typically fail to accommodate all of the children living within the camps. Moreover, these schools which have been built are usually primary schools, meaning that youths have little to no opportunities to continue their education.
Despite the efforts of various organizations to provide educational opportunities to Syrian children in youth in Iraq, access to education is still extremely limited. This is a major problem that, when compounded with the psychological trauma and familial losses these children and youth have suffered, has the potential to produce a lost generations of Syrians. While Iraq as a whole has high rates of education and literacy, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the refugee camps in the region simply do not have the resources to cover the large population of Syrian children and youth. To prevent the risk of a lost generation, education for refugees in northern Iraq needs to become a higher priority in the international community.
Nearly two years after the US withdrawal, Iraq is still struggling to recover from the decade long occupation. This is illustrated through many facets of Iraqi society, such as 1,131,810 internally displaced persons (IDPs) still reside in Iraq, with over 200,000 living in Baghdad. Rather than the number of IDPs declining, the violence and unrest in 2013 has produced a surge in new IDPs.
As one of othe most vulnerable of Iraq’s populations, IDP’s live in makeshift or temporary shelters, and face the constant risk of violence and alienation. An enormous number of Iraqi IDPs are unemployed, and when they do find work the income is meager. Many IDPs rely on food assistance from the government via the Public Distribution System (PDS), which is oftentimes inconsistent or incomplete. IDPs also lack proper access to education, which led to higher drop-out rates and an illiteracy rate of approximately 30%. These problems are further compounded by the fact that many IDPs are undocumented, which prevents them from receiving government assistance [link]. Additionally, Iraqi IDPs who live in makeshift or temporary homes face the imminent problem of winter weather, as they do not have protection from the harsh temperatures or the seasonal flooding.
In particular, women and girls are the most vulnerable. They make up over 80% of the Iraqi IDP population, and are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence, as well as domestic violence. Many of these women are single, meaning that they are the primary provider for their children. On the other hand, there are many women who are unaccompanied altogether, leaving them with little protection from violence.
International organizations such as the UNHCR, WHO, and UNESCO are doing what they can to provide Iraqi IDPs with legal assistance, as well as access to food, shelter, health care, protection from violence, and education. However, with the huge influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, this is becoming increasingly difficult as their resources are stretched thin. Iraqi IDPs are the victims are years of violence and oftentimes multiple displacements, and thus do not have many resources to help themselves. With the continued increasing violence that is spreading across the country, their situations are unlikely to change in the near future. If you have not yet done so, please sign our petition urging President Obama to keep Iraq and all of its most pressing matters on his administration’s agenda.
Here at EPIC, we tell you every day why we believe that Iraq matters. However, we have no way of telling the whole story. Our experiences and stories only give you partial glimpses into why President Obama needs to put Iraq back on his administration’s agenda. However, with the help of several of our supporters, we can paint a more complete picture. The following are comments left by signers of our petition on Change.org to “Put Iraq Back on the Agenda.” Comments like these reminds us why we must do all that we can to win U.S. support for a clear, long-term strategy for peace in Iraq.
From personal experiences…
“Two weeks ago my little cousin was killed in a bombing in Baghdad. I have not felt as helpless before in my life. Who to turn to? Who is going to pay for his death? Why do Iraqis in Iraq have to suffer every day from this chaos that the U.S. government have left them in, while we Americans can live here in prosperity and safety as if nothing has happened? I am an Iraqi American who is concerned all the time about the lives of members of my family and friends and I believe I cannot turn to anyone but this petition to speak up about this issue.”
-Rasha Sharhan, Exton, PA
“I don’t have another homeland.”
-Aola Hussein, Baghdad, IRAQ
“As an OIF Veteran I would like to see justice and support for the Iraqi people.”
-Garett Reppenhagen, Denver, CO
“Because I want to participate in the rebuilding of my country.”
-Dhergham Al-Jarrah, Baghdad, IRAQ
“I think USA holds the keys to Iraq’s stability. I ask for peace in my country.”
-Shawqi Gazala, Baghdad, IRAQ
“I lived for two years in Iraq – we haven’t finished the job there – people are still suffering from the chaos that the war brought on.”
-Emily Gish, Washington DC
To simply knowing that helping Iraq is the right thing to do…
“For every child who lost his parents, put Iraq back on the agenda.”
-Hussein Kadhim, Diwaniyah, IRAQ
“Humanitarian assistance is our most powerful way to true peace. We have the opportunity to unite the world in peace and compassion.”
-Martha Hill, Ann Arbor, MI
“I would like Iraq to go back to the normal way of life and live in peace… No more killing, No more fear”
-Hussein Khatab, UK
“We have a moral obligation to do all we can to help end the violence.”
-Jack Stansfield, Stanwood, WA
“A stable Iraq is a stable Middle East. A stable Middle East is a stable world.”
-Omri Rahmil, San Jose, CA
“The United States created a power vacuum when I left Iraq; it needs to create a new Marshall Plan in order to sustain the transition to a healthy state no matter the immediate economic benefit to us. Sometimes doing the right thing requires that we remember that, at one point, we did the wrong thing.”
-Joshua Stafford, Sonora, CA
People around the world believe that Iraq Matters. Do you? If you have not yet done so, please take a moment to sign our petition urging President Obama to put Iraq back on the agenda. You can easily share our petition with your family and friends via the convenient sharing tools on our Change.org petition page, or by simply sending them this link: http://www.change.org/petitions/president-obama-put-iraq-back-on-the-agenda. With your help, we’ll be able to reach our goal of 10,000 signatures!
NOTE: The full commentary offered below appears in our most recent IRAQ MATTERS podcast available here. The commentary begins at 2:36.
Shortly after the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq nearly two years ago, President Obama and Iraq’s Prime Minister — Nouri al-Maliki — held a joint press conference. At that event, Mr. Obama welcomed the Prime Minister as the elected leader of “Iraq’s most inclusive government yet.”
Mr. Obama declared: “We’re here to mark the end of this war.”
That final remark may have held some truth at the time, but nearly two years later, President Obama’s legacy of responsibly ending the war in Iraq is at risk. Right now, violence in Iraq has reached levels not seen since the height of Iraq’s civil war from 2006 to 2008. So far this year, the United Nations reports that more than 7,500 Iraqis have lost their lives in violence, mostly civilians like the headmaster and 14 children who were killed last month when a suicide bomber attacked a primary school in Tal Afar (northern Iraq).
Yes, you read that correctly. He drove a truck packed with explosives into the playground of the primary school, killing 14 children and the school’s headmaster.
What accounts for the dramatic escalation of violence?
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Prime Minister Maliki painted a picture of an “Iraq” that has largely become the victim of circumstances outside his government’s control.
Specifically, he blamed a spillover of militants and weapons from Syria’s civil war, and a reconstituted al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other extremists engaged in a renewed campaign to foment sectarian violence and division.
“A deeper security relationship with the U.S.” including the purchase of more U.S. weapons and a greater sharing of intelligence. Already, as of June of this year, Iraq has purchased more than $14 billion in U.S. weapons, services, and training for its military and security forces. That includes 18 F-16 fighters which are scheduled to be delivered next year. Under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program which is subject to Congressional oversight, Iraq is seeking to purchase a second set of F-16s and has stepped up requests for Apache attack helicopters, hellfire missiles, Predator drones and a range of other weapons.
The picture painted by Mr. Maliki is only part of the story.
Here’s what he gets right.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which currently calls itself “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or the Levant)” – is back and quite possibly, stronger than ever.
In military terms, common measures of an enemy’s strength are:
The number, scale, and sophistication of their operations.
Their numbers and rate of recruitment.
Their control of territory.
On all three measures, AQI has regained capabilities not seen since their previous peak of operations in 2006 and 2007, and as documented by Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War, they can “operate from [the Southern Iraqi port city of] Basra to coastal Syria.”
Even the once safe area of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region has not escaped harm.
To illustrate the increasing scale and sophistication of AQI’s operations, consider the following:
In July, al-Qaeda-affiliated militants simultaneously attacked Iraq’s Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons and two military divisions stationed near the prisons. The most successful of the attacks was on Abu Ghraib, freeing more than 500 inmates including Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi and other convicted senior members of al-Qaeda in Iraq
In late September, AQI attacked the headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Services (or Asaish) in Erbil – the first terrorist attack in that city since 2007.
Due to the number and tempo of such operations, Iraq’s National Army is stretched thin and unable to cover all of the areas where AQI is active. The Economist reports: “Iraq’s security forces have withdrawn from key towns in Anbar, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, and from a mainly Sunni area in the neighboring province of Salahuddin.” Just this week, the mayor of Fallujah was assassinated.
It is time to sound the alarm.
After all, we are not just talking about violence, we are talking about “atrocities.” As noted by Hayder Al-Khoei of Chatham House, today in Iraq, the overwhelming majority of violence is being carried out by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, and not by militias as we saw during the height of sectarian violence in 2007. And while AQI would like to characterize itself as a “protector of Sunnis”, their victims include Sunnis and Shia alike, as well as religious minorities, youth in cafés, protest organizers who they deem as not “radical” enough, tribal leaders who resist giving them carte blanche in their territories, and as previously mentioned, primary school children.
But wait… isn’t the war over?
In fact, didn’t retired General Petraeus just pen a long piece about “How we won the war in Iraq”?
Indeed, during the so-called “surge”, al-Qaeda in Iraq was nearly defeated by a combination of US counter-insurgency operations, the Sahwa (or Awakening) movement led by the late Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha and other tribal leaders, and the mobilization of the Sons of Iraq militias across Anbar, Salahuddin, and other areas that had previously tolerated the presence of foreign militants.
But the long-term follow through – particularly on the political front – to make those gains permanent never came as political rhetoric triumphed over common sense. That brings us to the part of the picture that was missing from Mr. Maliki’s op-ed. By all indications, the lessons of what worked in 2008 are not being applied to the situation in Iraq today.
That point was underscored in a recent letter to President Obama by 6 senior Senators including the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senators wrote: “as the United States learned through its own hard experience in Iraq, applying security solutions to political problems will only make those problems worse.”
Yet that message does not appear to have been received in Baghdad.
In fact, during Prime Minister Maliki’s visit to Washington DC when he met with two of the letter’s authors – namely Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker – the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign relations committee – the meeting was described by the Senators as “extremely disappointing”.“It felt like we were talking past each other,”said Senator Corker.
This raises the prospect that the US Senators will exercise their oversight powers to block the sale of US weapons and other forms of security assistance if “Mr. Maliki continues to marginalize the Kurds, alienate many Shia, and treat large numbers of Sunnis as terrorists…”However, as the letter states: “if he devises and implements a real governance strategy for Iraq, the United States is ready to provide the appropriate support…”
The need for Baghdad to make a course correction is urgent.
According to a veteran foreign aid worker quoted in the current issue of The Economist: “At the moment what fuels the conflict the most is the presence of central-government security forces in Sunni areas, where they arrest young men in the hundreds, torture them and then release them after money is paid. You can see al-Qaeda benefiting from the heavy-handed presence of the armed forces.” Earlier this year, blogger Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq rightly observed that Iraqi Security Forces are making the same mistakes that the Americans made in the early years of the war.
So what can the Obama administration and Congress do to encourage Baghdad to pursue – as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk put it – a more holistic approach to fighting terrorism and promoting peace?
EPIC has five recommendations:
FIRST, press Prime Minister Maliki’s government to do more to stop the flow of funds, militants and weapons fueling both sides of Syria’s civil war – and that means doing more than just stopping the overflights.
Perhaps most critically, the US and international community should demand that Mr. Maliki allow a full restoration of the transparency and independence of Iraq’s Central Bank. As reported by Hadeel Al Sayegh for the European Council of Foreign Relations, every day that institution is allowed to remain opaque, untold volumes of Iraq’s foreign cash reserves are being used or at risk of being used to fund the Assad regime’s war – either directly or via Tehran – against the Syrian opposition, escalating Syria’s sectarian civil war and regional tensions.
SECOND, don’t lose sight of the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable and displaced Iraqis, Syrians, and other vulnerable populations in the region.
3 million Iraqis remain displaced, and escalating violence is adding to those numbers contributing to a regional humanitarian crisis that includes more than 7 million Syrians fleeing internal violence including over 2 million Syrians – mostly children – who have fled to neighboring countries.
Right now, nearly half of Syria’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance. And in Iraq, despite the country’s oil wealth, a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
As US Assistant Secretary Anne Richard rightly put it: the U.S. and international community must redouble their efforts to avert the threat of a “lost generation” of children.
THIRD, require Mr. Maliki to address the legitimate demands of Iraqi protestors. These protesters are making reasonable demands. They are calling for the abrogation of Article 4 of the “counter-terrorism law” that allows people to be imprisoned on accusations without evidence or trial. They want the release of prisoners held without charge and those who have served their term but remain in detention. They want improvements in public services and an end to corruption… especially corruption in the security sector where militants continue to find ways to bribe their way past checkpoints and access ISF uniforms and equipment
FOURTH, reverse the precipitous cuts in US assistance.
As was reasonable to expect, US Iraq spending was substantially reduced following the 2011 troop withdrawal.
However, proposed US spending on Iraq for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 is dangerously low: $880 million which represents less than .0003% of the President’s proposed U.S. Federal Budget for FY2014.
Keep in mind that we’re not talking about funds for US troops on the ground – that’s no longer part of the equation – we’re talking about vital funds for cost-effective diplomacy and targeted assistance in areas that are critical for Iraq’s peace and development.
To name just a few examples, the President’s FY2014 budget proposes 70% to 95% cuts in U.S. funding for peace building, human rights, and civil society.
Accompanying those proposed cuts are reports that USAID is scheduled to LEAVE Iraq in 2014.
Budget pressures are also forcing a key office of the US Embassy in Baghdad that liaisons with Iraqi security agencies and senior officials to reduce their staff from its original strength of 260 to 59 by FY2015, and that has raised serious concerns as to whether that office’s mission of security cooperation can be adequately carried out.
ALL OF THESE proposed cuts come at a time of escalating violence in Iraq and serious reports of human rights violations and abuses of power by Prime Minister Maliki — not to mention Iraq’s national parliamentary elections scheduled for next year which will determine Iraq’s next Prime Minister.
In short, now is not the time to diminish America’s capacity to influence events in Iraq.
FINALLY, two years after the last troops came home, it is time for President Obama to articulate a clear, long-term strategy for peace in Iraq.
Two years ago, EPIC welcomed these words from President Obama:
…we’re partnering to strengthen the institutions upon which Iraq’s democracy depends — free elections, a vibrant press, a strong civil society, professional police and law enforcement that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary that delivers justice fairly, and transparent institutions that serve all Iraqis.
If we are to become true friends of the people of Iraq, we must continue to pursue progress in all of those areas.
Iraq’s leaders will not change overnight, but over time, through effective partnerships, educational exchanges, investments, and yes – in some cases – direct assistance – particularly in support of key institutions and civil society — Iraq will change for the better, producing better political, social, and economic outcomes for all Iraqis – and with THAT, we can truly mark an END to THIS WAR.
In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.
NOTE: The full commentary offered above appears in our recent Iraq Matters Podcast available here. The commentary begins at 2:36.
Sources (in order as they appear):
President Obama’s Bi-lateral Meeting with Prime Minister Maliki (video, joint statement), White House website, 1 November 2013.
Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk. Hearing on Iraq, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. 13 November 2013.
Ayub, Fatima (editor), Al-Sayegh, Hadeel (author of section titled, “Iraq: the ongoing perils of sectarian conflict,” pages 12 – 17) “The Gulf and Sectarianism” report, European Council on Foreign Policy, 13 November 2013.