Having watched the US fail to evacuate wartime allies in Afghanistan, Iraqis who worked with the Americans are now more worried than ever a similar fate awaits them.
US Army veteran Spencer Sullivan, right, and Abdulhaq Sodais, who served as his translator, look at images taken in Afghanistan [Peter Dejong/AP]
For Aymen, a former translator for the United States military in Iraq, seeing American allies in Afghanistan get left behind to face the Taliban following the American withdrawal felt personal.
“They abandoned them – they’re not keeping their promise,” said Aymen, who asked that only his first name be used for security concerns. “This is what went through my mind.”
Aymen is one of thousands of Iraqis who worked with the US during its 18-year presence in the country, and has been waiting for eight years to receive a US visa.
Like many others, he has been personally threatened by Iraq’s Iran-aligned militias, which are opposed to the US presence in the country. And when US influence in the country starts to fade, Aymen fears individuals such as himself will face even more violence at the hands of the powerful militias, as some Afghans experienced when the Taliban took over.
“There is going to be more chaos, more kidnapping, more killing,” Aymen told Al Jazeera.
Having watched the United States fail to evacuate the majority of its wartime allies in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover this month, Iraqis who worked with the US are now more fearful than ever that a similar fate may await them following the planned conclusion of the US combat mission in Iraq at the end of this year.
Even though this shift will likely resemble more of a transition to training and advisory roles rather than a full-fledged military withdrawal, according to analysts, the growing threat to US wartime allies from Iran-aligned militias and other groups in Iraq has heightened security concerns among the community.
While some continue to have faith their visa applications will be processed before they fall into harm’s way, many have now lost hope that the US will be able to help them leave the country.
“It breaks my hopes and we had a big hope and a big trust that the US would never leave us behind,” said Omar, another former translator for the US military.
Omar, who also requested his last name be withheld for security reasons, said he was shocked when he realised US President Joe Biden’s promises to significantly expand visa access would not materialise for Iraqis like him any time soon. He fled Iraq for Egypt in 2021, where he has continued to apply for a US visa.
“We sacrificed our lives, we sacrificed our families, and we took a dangerous job to support their mission in Iraq,” Omar said. “After that if they leave us, they will leave us for whom? We are facing more than 20 different militias.”
‘Not wait until the last minute’
Many Iraqi translators, linguists and contractors who worked with the Americans are eligible for the special immigrant visas (SIV) programme, which has existed since 2006 for US allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There need to be resources for the organisations to start working again to process Iraqis before the same situation happens as in Afghanistan, which has already been happening but it’s been silent,” said Dina al-Bayati, a former Iraqi SIV recipient who is currently an immigration activist and sits on the advisory board of the Association of Wartime Allies. “What could be done differently is not wait until the last minute.”
The backlog in cases has at times proven deadly – according to The Washington Post, more than 1,000 translators have been killed in both countries while waiting for years to get their applications processed.
According to Karokh Khoshnaw, head of the American-Kurdish Research Institute in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the American combat mission in Iraq is, for the most part, a cosmetic change arranged to placate anti-American sentiment from Iraq’s Shia parties, and will not result in a significant reduction in troop numbers. However, threats against US wartime allies are very real.
“These kinds of groups, if they are Shia in the [Iran-aligned militias] or Sunni like [ISIL] or al-Qaeda, they don’t accept any Iraqi citizen to work with US army, or US consulate or any of them,” Khoshnaw said. “So yes, there is a threat.”
‘Judged on its own merits’
Since their rise to prominence through the anti-ISIL campaign that began in 2014, Iraq’s Iran-linked militias have taken part in kidnappings, assassinations of activists and members of civil society, and rocket attacks against foreign forces in Iraq, often acting outside the control of the Iraqi government itself.
They demonstrated their power in Iraq earlier this year when they surrounded Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s office in Baghdad following the arrest of a militia leader. Several days after the confrontation, the leader was released in an apparent victory for the militias over al-Kadhimi.
When asked about how the US would avoid an Afghanistan-like situation in Iraq, a US State Department official discouraged comparisons between the two countries, stating the US role in Iraq “should be judged on its own merits” and the American presence there was “merely evolving”. The official said the fight against ISIL would continue in Iraq, but did not directly address concerns about threats against US allies from Iran-aligned militias.
Aymen knows for a fact these militia groups are after him – members of the Iran-aligned group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) came to his home in Salahuddin governorate while he was away on a trip to Baghdad last year and asked his neighbours about him.
Another translator, Neekar, said her home in Khanaqin, Iraq was shot at by members of ISIL in 2014. Now, years later, militias loyal to Iran have been asking her to wear a hijab – even though she belongs to the minority Kaka’i faith, not Islam.
In the city of Najaf in south-central Iraq, Thay, a medical student, said her husband who worked as an interpreter for US forces lives separately from her and their children in large part because of the threats he has received against him from Iran-linked militias.
Having waited since 2012 for his SIV visa to be approved, Mohammed, a former translator in Erbil whose uncle was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in 2005, said he has already resigned himself to dying at the hands of Iraq’s various armed groups.
“I consider myself dead, but I am thinking about the future of my family,” said Mohammed, who asked to use his surname rather than his first name for security reasons. He is the father of four daughters.
Even though Mohammed is in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Iran-backed militias do not have a presence, he said he is still at risk from potential informants.
‘Want to find a way out’
Sherzad Jawhir Khidhir, an Erbil-based PhD candidate at Near East University in Cyprus who specialises in Iraq’s disputed regions, said he has witnessed increasing interest in alternate, non-SIV emigration avenues in Facebook groups that cater to Iraqis who worked with the US.
“Lots of people are asking these days about how to apply to IOM [International Organization for Migration],” said Khidhir, who himself worked with the US military as an interpreter. “So that means people are concerned with what they saw in Afghanistan, and they want to find a way to get out of Iraq.”
Neekar, the translator from Khanaqin, also applied to the IOM back in 2014, and has been waiting for progress on her application ever since. Despite the continuing situation in Afghanistan, she said she still believes the US will help her leave Iraq one day.
“I have a hope,” she said. “I think if people want life, they must respond to faith.”
The State Department reiterated the US’s “commitment to supporting partners” in Iraq. But Mohammed and Omar are not sure how much more faith they have. Both are currently jobless as they continue to wait to have their SIV applications processed.
Omar said the uncertain future has “destroyed” his family. He, Mohammed, and other Iraqi translators Al Jazeera spoke with requested that the US reopen the SIV programme for new Iraqi applicants, expedite the process, and transport applicants to third countries for processing.
But for other Iraqis such as Thay, even applying for the SIV programme is a futile effort. Even though her husband was eligible, he refused to apply, preferring to put his trust in a more secure future Iraq.
“He’s hopeless,” Thay said, recounting frequent discussions she had with her husband in which she tried to convince him to submit documents to the programme. Although initially she thought it would be worth it to try to apply, with time her views have steadily changed.
“I told him many people went out like this. He said, ‘Just name one,’” she recalled. “The way I see it, he is right.”
2021 Al Jazeera