Sunday, December 23, 2007

EPIC's Year-End Appeal

Dear Friends,

Iraqi refugee girl. Many fleeing Iraqis have no legal status beyond Iraq's borders and desperately need our help. Inside Iraq they need food, medicine, jobs, and a safe place to live.
This holiday season please consider making a year-end, tax-deductible contribution to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. Give the gift of peace and humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq.

Armed conflict in Iraq has created one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time. More Iraqis have fled their homes than any other population in the world.

One year ago this month, when the U.S. administration and Congress failed to act, EPIC was there to sound the alarm.

Today, we are urging President Bush to end his silence about the mass displacement of 4.5 million Iraqis. We are working to expand U.S. admissions of especially vulnerable refugees and generate emergency humanitarian assistance for Iraqis harmed by violence in Iraq. And we are getting results.

To strengthen our impact in the New Year, please make a year-end gift to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center today.

Consider what EPIC supporters like you helped make possible in 2007. Together we generated more than 3,000 constituent letters in support of critical legislation, including the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, introduced by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR). We contacted key offices, and pressed our case month after month.

In recognition of the cumulative impact of all of these efforts, I am very pleased to make a special announcement. Last week, we won final passage of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act! Within days, the President is expected to sign this important legislation into law.

This is a shared victory for all of us. The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act requires the Bush administration to expand U.S. admissions of especially vulnerable Iraqi refugees and provide a comprehensive plan for assisting countries hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees.

Without your continuing support, hard fought steps like the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act would not be possible. Please make a year-end gift to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center today.

This month we also made further progress in generating desperately needed funding for Iraqi refugees and other noncombatants harmed by the war. Late Wednesday night, Congress passed an omnibus spending package for FY 2008 that includes:
  • $110 million in emergency assistance to “support the growing humanitarian needs of persons affected by violence in Iraq,”

  • $200 million in emergency assistance to “address the pressing needs of Iraqi refugees and of Palestinian refugees,” and

  • $5 million for the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund.
As part of their conference report, House and Senate appropriators stated: “The Appropriations Committees remain deeply concerned with the plight of Iraqi refugees and IDPs.” Furthermore, they expect additional assistance to be made available in 2008.

With your help and the help of coalition partners in Washington, Congress has done something that President Bush has yet to do, acknowledge the plight of more than 4.5 million displaced Iraqis.

This and the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act represent hard-earned steps in the right direction -- steps made possible by supporters like you.

To strengthen our impact in the New Year, please make a year-end gift to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center today.

If you prefer to donate by mail, please send your tax-deductible gift today to:

Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC)
1101 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Suite No. 203
Washington, DC 20003

Thank you for your generous support. Together, you and I can translate the peace of the season into action for the New Year.

With deep appreciation,
Erik Gustafson
Executive Director
Education for Peace in Iraq Center

P.S. This year, you can check off your last minute holiday shopping and support peace in Iraq at the same time. When you click through the EPIC FreePledge portal to do your online shopping, a percentage of every purchase you make goes directly to support EPIC.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Evidence Mounts Against Blackwater in Nisour Square Shootings

The Blackwater shootings in Nisour Square highlight at least two problems that Americans must grapple with. First, some American security contractors in Iraq appear to lack the sound judgment and restraint required to carry out their mission (see the Blackwater shootings, the DynCorp Int'l shootings and the Unity Resources Group shootings). Second, these contractors have operated for years without sufficient scrutiny or legal consequences to their actions.

The Blackwater security contractors involved in the incident have claimed they retaliated after being fired upon, which resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqis. The evidence against Blackwater has slowly mounted since this initial claim. In a recent NPR report, Philadelphia attorney Susan Burke said, "We have not found anyone, anyone at all, who has come forward to say there were any shots fired or any kind of threat made upon these Blackwater shooters". In addition, Iraqi civilians have filed civil lawsuits accusing Blackwater guards of disobeying orders by going to Nisour Square instead of staying with the State Department official they were supposed to be guarding, and accusing them of taking steroids.

Equally disturbing is the fact that no law has been found--U.S., military or Iraqi--that holds these contractors accountable for their actions. The following is from a November 28 NPR report:

"The more immediate challenge for Justice Department officials and prosecutors has been to find an American law that applies to the parameters of this incident.

Bob Chadwell, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, says prosecuting the Blackwater guards isn't a slam dunk.

'They are going to have to shoehorn the facts into a statute that wasn't designed to address that concern, and that is a problem," he said, referring to Justice Department lawyers. "If the law isn't meant to address something, it is sometimes like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes it just can't be done.'

...A federal grand jury is hearing from witnesses this week, and the Justice Department has said it could be months before it seeks an actual indictment.
Any and all Americans abroad represent their country at all times, whether a diplomat, a businessman or woman, a backpacker or a security contractor. We must determine whether or not the actions of American security guards in Iraq have been excessive or irresponsible, and there must be legal recourse to address those actions. Doing so will show Iraq and the rest of the world that the U.S. is strongly dedicated to the legal system and that no one is above the law.

Photo: Nisour Sqaure; Khalid Mohammed for the New York Times

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Are Conditions Safe Enough for Iraqi Refugees to Return Home?

Some Iraqi refugees are returning to their homes in Iraq, according to Iraqi government officials and the UNHCR. Iraqi officials are quick to cite improved security as the reason that refugees are returning. Damien Cave of the New York Times reports:

"On Nov. 7, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi spokesman for the American-Iraqi effort to pacify Baghdad, said that 46,030 people returned to Iraq from abroad in October because of the 'improving security situation.'"
However, the UNHCR reports other factors as playing a much more significant role in determining whether refugees return. On November 23 at a Geneva press conference, Jennifer Pagoni said:

"According to a survey done by our staff in Syria, there are many reasons for returns to Iraq other than considerations of improved security. Of some 110 Iraqi families UNHCR spoke with in Syria the majority said they are returning because they are running out of money and/or resources, face difficult living conditions, or because their visas have expired."
The primary concern here is the safety of Iraqis. Refugees should not have to return to a conflict zone under any circumstances, whether forced by host communities or governments (refoulement) or, in this case, because of a lack of resources, jobs and services available to them.

"We welcome improvements to the security conditions and stand ready to assist people who have decided or will decide to return voluntarily. However, UNHCR does not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns. That would be possible only when proper return conditions are in place – including material and legal support and physical safety."
Photo Caption: Iraqi refugees in the Damascus district of Sayyida Zainab, a hub for Iraq refugees; J. Wreford for the UNHCR

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is the Surge Working?

Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York TimesIn the media, that question is being asked a lot these days, and for those of you planning to break bread with extended family this week, it will likely be among the topics of conversation.

So how can I resist but to throw in my two cents. Consider this post a Ground Truth Guide to one of the most political questions of our day.

First, let's recognize the question for what it is: a partisan test of loyalties. Answer "no" and you must be marching with those antiwar Democrats. Answer "yes" and you're a "pro-war Bush supporter."

Second, the question invites the answerer to snub either (1) the courageous efforts of 175,000 U.S. servicemen and women who are risking their lives in Iraq right now, while we're all enjoying our Tofurkies, OR (2) the legitimate concerns of millions of Americans, Iraqis, and people around the globe -- civilian and military -- who recognize the limits of what a foreign military can achieve in Iraq.

Third, it's the wrong question asked by the wrong people at the wrong time. For starters, it frames Iraq as an all-American domestic political problem with only one possible solution. The Problem: What to do about this thing called I-rak? Solution: send more of our G.I.s! Problem: Darfur? Solution: Send in our boys. Problem: global warming? Solution: da boyz!

Are you seeing the problem? Ending conflict and suffering in Iraq presents a military, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, and -- most importantly -- peacebuilding challenge. Is the surge working? That question is not about addressing the world's largest population movement and humanitarian crisis today. The UNHCR estimates 4.5 million people have been displaced. Nor is it about the country's 30-50% unemployment rate, which most experts point to as a major contributing factor of Iraq's instability. Reducing all of America's policy options to an either-or question that suggests only military solutions (surge vs. withdrawal) is just plain silly talk. Most Americans are already wising up to that, but it seems our politicians are a little slower.

Now that we have liberated ourselves from that ridiculous question and the obsession of small-minded media outlets to put all of us into neat little ticky tack boxes, it's time to consider what's really happening on-the-ground in Iraq.

Without question, there has been a remarkable improvement in security. Here's an excerpt from today's report by New York Times Baghdad correspondents Damien Cave and Alissa Rubin:
The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army. [more]
And on NPR's Morning Edition, Jamie Tarabay reports: "Nine months after the start of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, signs of life are slowly returning to some neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital. In the Sunni enclave of Amriya on the west side of the city, shops are reopening, and the economy is picking up."

Iraqi bloggers, military bloggers, and a U.S. Army surgeon in West Baghdad who I've been talking with by phone confirm these recently reported trends.

But don't blame it all on the surge. There are other important factors contributing to these recent improvements. For example, there's the popular backlash against the terror campaign of al-Qaeda (ALQ) and other extremists and the formation of anti-ALQ coalitions among tribal leaders. Those trends began in 2006 and gathered momentum in early 2007. Here's what I wrote about the trend last May:
The tribal leaders formed the Anbar Salvation Council in fall 2006 to fight al-Qa'ida. Also called the Anbar Awakening, the coalition began with dozens of tribes and now boasts more than 40 tribes or sub-tribes from Anbar. The Sunni Arab leader of the movement, Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, lost his father and three brothers to al-Qaida assassins. AP quotes al-Rishawi as saying insurgents were "killing innocent people, anyone suspected of opposing them. They brought us nothing but destruction and we finally said, enough is enough."

Early this year, as the council gained new tribal members and strength, cooperation with U.S. forces began to improve especially in and around Ramadi, Anbar's provincial council. Last month I talked with a Marine fellow in Senator Reed's office who served in Ramadi two years ago. He stays in touch with fellow Marines, including men serving there right now who confirm a remarkable turnaround in Ramadi.
Other related trends include: the organizing of neighborhood militias, the spread of local cease-fires, the growing capabilities of some of Iraq's security forces and commanders, and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting and securing the local population. In addition, Gen. Petreaus and other commanders have focused on building alliances at the local level with anyone who can help restore order.

The real question is less about whether or not we're seeing improvements in security. We are, and that's good news. But can these recent improvements be sustained? And will the downward trend in violence continue? After all, Iraq's rate of conflict-related deaths remains among the highest in the world.

Our friend Abu Aardvark and other experts are not so sure. They caution that, despite recent improvements in security, current military tactics carry the risk of moving Iraq "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."

Abu Aardvark's caution, if not pessimism, got strong military back-up in last Thursday's Washington Post. In his front page article "Iraqis Wasting an Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say", Tom Ricks writes:
Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

...all the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side."

The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on -- they're back to attacking again."

The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: "As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists." Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad. [more]
In short, despite improvements in security, the challenge of building an enduring peace remains.

So that's the Ground Truth Guide to the BIG political question of this year's Thanksgiving. I'll leave it to our readers and future blogs to generate some more intelligent questions that the media ought to be asking and elected officials and candidates ought to be answering.

Photo caption: Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Blogger alert: Abu Aardvark recently hosted an interesting mano y mano debate between Georgetown scholar Colin Kahl and Center for American Progress policy analyst Brian Katulis.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Solid Figures on Jordan

Earlier this year, Jordan commissioned the Fafo Institute to help determine the population of Iraqi refugees in the Hashemite kingdom. Rumors hit Washington this summer that the numbers they were coming up with were far lower than those Jordan had long quoted. Now the report is finally out and the numbers are indeed lower, but not drastically so.

Fafo and the Jordan Ministry of Statistics say there were "between 450,000-500,000 Iraqi residents in Jordan as of May 2007", whereas Jordan had previously maintained that there were about 750,000 Iraqis.

Whether the number is 450,000 or 750,000, it's staggering. With Jordan's estimated population of just under 6 million, it means that either 1 in 9 people in Jordan is a refugee from Iraq or 1 in 14. Either way, it represents a huge burden on Jordan's infrastructure and economy. Imagine comparable numbers here in the U.S. of between 23 to 38 million refugees!

In short, Jordan needs the help of the international community to meet the needs of so many refugees. Food and water security, job opportunities, and access to health care are severely lacking and must be addressed now. Women, children and the elderly are particularly at risk because in many cases their fathers and brothers were killed in Iraq, forcing their families to flee in the first place. Women and young girls are often forced into survival sex and prostitution to support their families. See a new report from the Women's Commission on the state of health care for Iraqi women in Jordan here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Progress on the Syrian Front

The New York Times recently reported that Syria will allow U.S. officials from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to visit Damascus in order to screen and process Iraqis who have taken refuge in the Syrian capital.

Prior to the visit to Syria that brought on this new agreement, only the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was allowed into Syria to process Iraqi refugees. UNHCR could then refer refugees to the U.S. for resettling, but many of these refugees were unable to reach State Department or DHS offices outside of Syria due to a severe lack of funds.
“This is obviously very good news,” said Jacob Kurtzer, a Congressional advocate for Refugees International. “We’re very happy, but it really does draw attention to the need for a continuous high-level diplomatic presence in Syria and the rest of the region.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Jacob here. Lori Scialabba, who was appointed Associate Director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services just over a year ago, and James Foley, a career diplomat, deserve praise for speaking directly with Syria. We should also praise Syria, the UNHCR and UNICEF for accommodating 100,000 Iraqi schoolchildren in Syrian schools, a three-fold increase from last year's 33,000.

These developments are small victories for all of us, most importantly for the refugees themselves. But we need to keep an eye on the numbers and stay on top of the administration on this issue. There are 150,000 Iraqi schoolchildren in Syria who still need the education every child deserves. And bear in mind that in October, the first month of fiscal year 2008, the U.S. resettled just over 450 Iraqi refugees out of an expected 12,000 for the fiscal year. Already we're behind on our projections, but continuous pressure on Congress and the administration will get us the results we want.

Caption: Iraqi school children in a cramped basement in the Damascus district of Sayyida Zainab, a hub for Iraq refugees; M. Bernard for the UNHCR

Monday, November 12, 2007

Honoring Our Veterans

In recognition of our veterans, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece by William Quinn, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. Quinn writes about his return to civilian life after the intensity of serving in a war zone.
The only feeling I've ever had that was more surreal than arriving in a war zone was returning from one.

I came home on R&R in 2005 after eight months in Iraq. Heading for the baggage claim in Detroit, I watched travelers walking and talking on their cellphones, chatting with friends and acting just the way people had before I'd left for Baghdad. The war didn't just seem to be taking place in another country; it seemed to be taking place in another universe. There I was, in desert camouflage, wondering how all the intensity, the violence, the tears and the killing of Iraq could really be happening at the same time that all these people were hurrying to catch their flights to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or wherever.
Now as a student majoring in international politics and security studies at Georgetown, Quinn feels the same disconnect with the war among his peers on campus.
I find it frustrating that Facebook is a bigger part of most students' lives than the war. After my first semester, I decided to rejoin the Army by signing up with the ROTC. I felt a bit guilty for having done only one tour in Iraq while friends of mine have done two or three. And I didn't want to forget the war. I may be prejudiced, but many of my college peers seem self-absorbed. I didn't want to end up like that.

...Nonetheless, the Army's values are important to soldiers. They may not always live up to them, but they do when it matters most. Soldiers are selfless; they are courageous; they are loyal. The most interesting intellectual conversations I've had have been with others in the military. They discuss things not to impress you but because they're trying to figure them out. They're faced with difficult situations, and they want to make sense of them. Though many privately question our government's policies, they do their duty, which lies beyond the political debate.

This culture of duty is at odds with the culture of individualism and self-promotion that seems paramount here in college.
As one of those students, I have to admit that at first I felt a little defensive about William's op-ed. But as these thoughts sank in I began to accept them as accurate. Indeed, the college life is a far cry from military service, and our responsibilities are different. College is a duty to one's self, whereas the military is a duty to one's country. Serving in this country's armed forces requires a selflessness that others probably don't understand. Today, we honor their courage and their call to duty.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Safe, But Feeling Isolated

In a recent entry, "Success Stories and the Road Ahead", I commended Congress for beginning to address the Iraqi refugee crisis. I also argued, because many Iraqi refugees are terribly short on money and often must spend their life savings just to make it to the United States, that the U.S. must go a step further by accomodating such refugees when they do finally arrive.

When an individual is resettled in the United States via standard protocol, they are given refugee status. They are put in contact with a social service agency that provides them with food stamps and three months’ rent. Alternately, when someone enters the U.S. with a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), they are not afforded refugee status and therefore do not receive what few benefits a social service agency provides.

In fiscal year 07, 820 Iraqis entered the United States with SIV’s. That means over half of the 1,608 Iraqis who came into the U.S. last year are not receiving the benefits afforded with refugee status.

The Washington Post ran an article today on the discomfort, isolation and utter lack of resources Iraqis face when they arrive in the States. Most of the refugees interviewed were resettled via standard procedures. But three months' rent does little in the way of financial help and does nothing in the way of adjusting Iraqis to American culture.

Hakee Ismael was helping U.S. troops in Baghdad when they were ambushed. The attack left him blind. He came to the States with his wife, Zainab, and their three-year-old son, Sodiq. Nadhum Ali al-Hasnawi was a Shiite upholsterer in the predominantly Sunni city of Taji, north of Baghdad. It wasn't long before a death threat came to his family's home in the form of a hail of gunfire. These Iraqis are part of a small group of 38 who were resettled in the Tucson area. They have each other for company and support, but little else.

Iraqis are often left traumatized by their conflict at home, and here in the U.S. they feel disoriented and alone. According to the Washington Post, the social service agencies designated to help refugees are often unable to do so. The U.S. must act responsibly by taking care of the most vulnerable Iraqis not only by resettling them in the United States, but also by appropriating funds to help them through the adjustment period. Sen. Cardin (D-MD) has introduced legislation (currently a provision in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill) that would provide Iraqis who come to the U.S. with SIV's the same benefits that come with refugee status. It's a start, and we must see it through.

At this point, the U.S. is doing only what I've described above, but there are some Americans who are stepping up where the administration is falling short. I've previously written about American servicemen and women helping Iraqis who helped us. Erin Simpson and Christy Voelkel are two Tucson residents who organized a community collection effort to help locally resettled Iraqis. They have raised money with their community and have personally delivered kitchen equipment, clothes, pillows and children's toys to Iraqis.

We can show our true colors as Americans by stepping up and taking the initiative to help our Iraqi friends. EPIC is in the process of compiling a list of resettlement agencies across the country so that you may get involved. If you live in the Arizona region and want to help right now, you can contact Erin Simpson.

Caption: Fawzi al-Khazraji, 42, in his new Tucson home; David Sanders for the Washington Post 11/2007

Monday, November 05, 2007

Seeing Through Blackwater's PR Strategy

Bosom Buddies: L Paul Bremer and Blackwater Guards (AP Photo)As long as we allow private military contractors in Iraq to commit human rights violations with impunity, we are complicit in the reckless endangerment and deaths of innocent civilians. All contractors must be held accountable under law, and every innocent life – American and Iraqi – must be equally protected.

Today’s New York Times editorial Legal Loopholes in Iraq concurs:

It is folly to outsource the tasks of combat to private contractors with no commitment to the nation’s broader goals in Iraq, undermining the already hard job of gaining Iraqis’ trust... That folly was compounded by the decision to allow gun-toting mercenaries to run around Iraq without any clear legal tether holding them accountable to Iraqi law, American criminal law or military law. The killings in Baghdad last September were not the first crimes involving private contractors working for the American government. Still, four years after the start of the war, not one contractor has been prosecuted for crimes committed against an Iraqi. That is no way for a nation to behave if it prides itself on following the rule of law.
Last month, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight held a hearing on the Blackwater killings. In opening statement, Chairman Henry Waxman offered the following interesting stats: According to Blackwater’s own incident reports, the security firm has been involved in at least 195 ‘escalation of force’ incidents in Iraq since 2005. In 80% of those cases, the company reports that its people fired first. Furthermore, the company acknowledges that (prior to the Sept. 16th incident) it was involved in 16 Iraqi civilian casualties and 162 incidents with property damage, primarily to Iraqi civilian vehicles.

So how did the chief witness at the hearing, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince respond? He simply downplayed the deaths of innocent civilians as “traffic accidents” while emphasizing Blackwater’s record in providing protective services for U.S. diplomats. Sadly, a few lawmakers appeared to know of Blackwater’s public relations strategy in advance, and eagerly played along. Here’s an example, courtesy of Dana Milbank’s play-by-play commentary on the hearing for the Washington Post:

"How many individuals under your protective service have been injured or killed?" asked Patrick McHenry (N.C.).


McHENRY: Zero?

PRINCE: Zero, sir.

McHENRY: Zero individuals that Blackwater's protected have been killed in a Blackwater transport?

PRINCE: That's correct.

McHENRY: Zero?


Yet by far, the biggest disappointment was to see 60 Minutes help Blackwater get its message points out there unchallenged. Fortunately, most lawmakers and Americans aren’t buying it. The more Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his defenders insist that the only thing that matters is the safe escort of Americans in Iraq, regardless of how many innocent bystanders are killed along the way, the more Americans see the dangers of allowing such contractors to run amuck in Iraq.

Every time Blackwater fails to safeguard Iraqi civilians in the conduct of their “protective services,” they foster an environment that prolongs the war and further endangers Americans. Recognizing this, the U.S. House passed a bill (389 to 30) to make all private security contractors in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts. Now it is time for the Senate to follow suit.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Iraq Crisis in Numbers: An Update

Recently, the Baltimore Sun ran an article on the refugee crisis. I was happy to see a local newspaper tackling the issue; I take it (with a heavy dose of optimism) as an indication that more and more people are paying attention to the crisis.

The article focused on one of the six Iraqis resettled in Maryland in fiscal year 2007, a woman named Ban Saadi Abdallattif, who came to the States with her nine-year-old son Sajad Mokhalad Bashar. Ms. Abdallattif was a teacher when she lived in Diyala. But the February, 2006 Samarra bombing of Al-Shi'a Al-Askari mosque marked a dramatic spike in violence that took the lives of her uncle and cousin, and which nearly led to her brother's kidnapping. Theirs is a mixed Shi'a and Sunni family, making them targets for both sides of the conflict. She fled to Syria with her entire family just over a year ago and arrived in Laurel, Maryland, this September.

Ban Saadi Abdallattif is awaiting a Social Security number so that she can begin work. Her son is in school in Laurel. She is relieved to be in the safety of the U.S. and does not plan to return to Iraq.

Sadly, Ban Saadi Abdallattif and her son represent only a fraction of the displacement crisis, and a remarkably lucky fraction at that. This fact is starkly indicated by the following stats, which clearly demonstrate the concerted effort that is required to address the crisis:

Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq: 2.3 million (
UN High Commissioner for Refugees)

Refugees outside of Iraq: 2.4 million (

Total number displaced: 4.7 million (

UNHCR referrals to the United States as of Oct 5: 11,911 (Baltimore Sun)

Total number of Iraqi refugees admitted in the 2007 fiscal year: 1,608 (Human Rights First)

Of these, number referred by the UNHCR in FY07: 1,510 (HRF)

Number referred by a U.S. embassy program for Iraqi employees in FY07: 98 (HRF)

Special immigrant visas issued to translators and their family members in FY07: 820 (HRF)

Iraqi governorates with restrictions on internal movement: at least 11 of 18 (

UNHCR Syria: 1.4 million Iraqi refugees; 128,000 registered, nearly 36 percent with specific needs (

UNHCR Jordan: 1 million Iraqi refugees; 48,833 registered, 14.4 percent with specific needs (

Success Stories and the Road Ahead

Over the last several months, EPIC members have delivered nearly 2,000 letters to the Senate in support of Senators Kennedy and Smith's "Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act". This week, EPIC has been on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers regarding this legislation, which recently passed as an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization Act. This is a victory for everyone concerned with the refugee crisis. We are urging lawmakers and likely House conferees to maintain and strengthen the amendment's language as it goes to conference with the House.

Nevertheless, as
an editorial in today's New York Times argues, considerable work remains if the United States is to live up to its obligations by protecting our Iraqi allies. This editorial is on the mark. Iraqis often flee their homes in desperation and with much haste, giving them less than ample opportunity to gather their belongings and assets. As a result, they have little money to care for themselves. $18,000 to $20,000 is only enough to support a family of four in a country like Jordan for three months. Even the most expedient refugee processing takes at least three months, leaving such families with no funds for a plane to the U.S.

Ordinary men and women in our armed services recognize this situation for what it is and are stepping up to the plate. The NY Times editorial describes Jason Faler, an Oregonian Army captain whose Iraqi interpreter fled Iraq after his house was destroyed and he was threatened with death by the same captors who kidnapped and killed a colleague. Mr. Faler's interpreter made it to the U.S. with his own funds, which are now nearly depleted, forcing him to reside in Mr. Faler's basement. Mr. Faler has begun his own foundation ( to raise money for Iraqi refugees.

Here's more from the editorial:
Private efforts are immensely laudable, but this is a government responsibility. Some lawmakers seem to be waking up to that. The Senate last week approved an amendment to the labor, health and human services appropriations bill that would grant Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and translators the same relocation benefits as refugees for six months. Conferees are negotiating a final bill this week, and it would be a travesty if they dropped this aid.
The amendment the NY Times refers to an amendment introduced by Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Smith (R-OR) (No. 3400) to the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill. EPIC and the refugee advocacy community have been on the Hill this week to support this amendment and to strengthen its language.
Congress should also pass a bill sponsored by Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Edward Kennedy that would raise the number of special immigrant visas available for Iraqis and Afghans who have worked for the United States from 500 to 5,000 a year for the next five years. The bill would also streamline what is now a tortuous process. This country owes this and more to the men and women who have risked their lives to help Americans.
Indeed, these are among the tasks at hand, and we should capitalize on the momentum in this country and in Congress to see them through.

Caption: Angelina Jolie listens to Iraqi Refugees; UN photo 08/2007

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Sarah Holewinski on Blackwater Killings

Sarah Holewinski is the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a group founded by slain U.S. aid worker Marla Ruzicka that works with civilian victims of wars to make sure they get the recognition and assistance they need. Sarah wrote the following commentary shortly after the Sept. 16th shooting deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis by Blackwater personnel. It was published by United Press International on September 28, 2007.

When someone is shot in America, there’s an investigation, a trial, damages might be paid. Not so in Iraq.

The U.S. military has the power to investigate wrongful killings by its forces and can make condolence payments to the families of those it kills unintentionally. But too often security contractors -- hired to guard everything from convoys to diplomats -- just drive away, leaving shattered lives behind.

In the wake of allegations that armed guards working for the private security contractor Blackwater opened fire unprovoked on a crowded traffic circle last week in Baghdad, killing at least 11 and injuring a dozen more, that may all change.

Saying he did not know how often such incidents occurred and pressed to find out by public and media attention, Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday announced he was sending a five-person fact-finding team to Iraq. Although he had been “assured … that we have the proper procedures, policies and legal authorities in place to oversee and manage these contractors,” he told reporters, “I want to be confident that that is in fact the case.”

What he will find is that it is not the case at all. In fact, human-rights groups and Iraqis alike have been asking for years when the U.S. military was going to finally hold contractors accountable.

There is a third party to the contracts made between the U.S. government and private security firms -- the Iraqi people. They have not only been overlooked but literally removed from the equation. In 2004 the U.S. occupation authorities issued a directive granting contractors immunity under Iraqi law. They could not be sued by Iraqis, and even within the U.S. government and commanders on the ground, there is confusion as to whether they can be court-martialed.

In this legal limbo, contractors are under no obligation even to report incidents in which they shoot and kill Iraqis, and are unlikely to be investigated or face trial for causing wrongful deaths. Innocent Iraqis suffering death and injury at the hands of contractors have little recourse.

The Gates fact-finding team and a joint State Department-Iraqi government commission also looking into the matter are not the first to do damage control when it comes to the role of private security contractors in Iraq.

Last fall Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former military lawyer and member of the Armed Services Committee, led an effort to include contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- a set of standards used by the U.S. military to hold its own personnel accountable for bad behavior.

But that legislation was later found to be inadequate by military lawyers, and while it is true contractors can be sent home and prosecuted in the United States under the Military Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction Act, less than a handful ever have for serious crimes.

Most contractors with their boots on the ground aren’t even American, hailing from places where no justice system will ever follow through on prosecution.

Iraqis are left with unjustified, unexplained killings and horrifying injuries and an example of the rule of law lying in ruins.

Finding a solution isn’t an academic exercise, it’s a strategic imperative. Every civilian killed or wounded undermines the U.S. mission in Iraq. Gates himself admitted the U.S. military had to “do everything in our power to make sure that (contractors) are not only abiding by our rules but are conducting themselves in a way that makes them an asset in this war in Iraq and not a liability.”

The lack of uniform accountability for those responsible for civilian casualties tarnishes our reputation and puts American soldiers on the receiving end of anger and resentment. For the families suffering as a result of contractor shootings, finding a solution also happens to be the right thing to do.

Whatever recommendations emerge from the Gates probes in Iraq, three things are essential.

First, there should be official recognition of the severity and scope of the problem. Heartening is a Sept. 25 directive issued by Gates’ deputy calling for clearer rules for contractors. It’s late in coming, but it’s a good first step toward uniform accountability.

Second, the U.S. military must negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. The SOFA is a compact clarifying the rules for U.S. armed forces, and the United States has one with every nation in the world where U.S. troops are based -- except Iraq and Afghanistan. This oversight needs to be remedied. The SOFA should formally apply to all U.S. government contractors -- including those working for the State Department -- the same rules it applies to the U.S. military.

That includes transparent investigation and prosecution of those who break the rules and hurt or kill civilians.

Third, the United States should extend its condolence and compensation systems to cover civilians harmed by private contractors. The U.S. military has the ability to pay a symbolic condolence to Iraqis it unintentionally harms and, separately, can provide full compensation to civilians wrongfully or negligently hurt by American troops.

It is unfair and strategically unwise to leave Iraqis harmed by contractors -- whether accidentally or intentionally -- with nothing. To ensure accountability, payments made to civilians should come out of their contract with the U.S. government. If a contractor does not agree to pay, they should not get a contract, plain and simple.

Blackwater security details are back on the streets of Baghdad. The U.S. government doesn’t have the forces to replace them, so the atmosphere of unaccountability continues. If the Gates team does not return with clear legal standards for contractors and make compensation for casualties mandatory, they will have failed the Iraqi people and betrayed American values.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eid Mubarak!

Happy Eid to all of our Muslim readers and to Muslims around the world. I pray this is a joyous time for you and your loved ones.

For our non-Muslims readers, few festivals are anticipated with greater delight than Eid el-Fitr. It is this festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the annual assertion of 'the spirit over the flesh' with prayers, sawm (fasting), charity and self-accountability.

Ramadan ends with the sighting of the first crescent of a new moon, heralding the beginning of a new month in the lunar calendar. Of course, different religious authorities apparently see different things when they gaze up into the night sky, which leads one Iraqi blogger in Europe to pose the question: Whom to Follow?

MixMode writes (Oct. 12): "As it's always the case on every year, not all Muslim countries announced today as the first day of the Eid. Some countries are celebrating that today, though, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Libya, and Muslims in non-Arab countries such as those in China, Afghanistan and Philippine followed along. While Egypt, Syria and Oman announced that Saturday is the first day of the Eid! It has been the case for years, and every year I see on TV the endless discussions about how to put an end to such a dilemma. However, there is none and it seems that even if one Muslim climb the roof of his house in the middle of the night and see the sign in the sky (a crescent), he will not be able to celebrate the joyful days because the country did not announce through its official religious channels!"

"The chaotic situation, in my opinion, is when someone like me living in Europe, do I have to celebrate the Eid on the same as in Iraq, because I am an Iraqi? The Sunnis are celebrating today and it looks like the Shiite are going to do that tomorrow! But I don't believe in this Sunni and Shiite concept!"

"A little bit of simple thinking provided me with more than one solution, in fact: we should count the days of the month of Ramadan and accordingly decide which day to start celebrating the Eid. The other solution is to follow suit on one religious figure in the Netherlands (for sure there is one, or not?) who would watch the sky at night for a clear sighting of the crescent then declare the next day as the first day of the Eid. Simple, especially if we take into the consideration that the Ramadan rituals (fasting) are based on the local time in the country where I live i.e. The Netherlands, not local time in Jakarta!"

Thanks for that wisdom MixMode. So whether you're a Muslim living somewhere in the Diaspora or in the Muslim world, all of us here at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) wish you and your family the happiest of Eids. May it mark a new beginning for peace in Iraq and the Middle East.

NPR Morning Edition reports on the plight of Iraqi School Kids in Syria

Among broadcast media, National Public Radio is the leader in its coverage of Iraqi refugees. This morning, NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos filed a powerful report on Iraqi school kids in Syria. I highly recommend listening to Deb’s report if you’re looking to better understand the plight of Iraqi refugees.

Here’s a short description: Morning Edition, October 16, 2007 · Syria has become a safe haven for 2 million Iraqi refugees, most of them children. Education is important to Iraqis, but their parents can't afford school in Syria, meaning a generation of Iraqi kids may go uneducated. Listen to Deb’s powerful report here.

Be sure to listen for her short interview with Rami, one of the Iraqi children she talks with. It will break your heart. She also talks with Syrian kids like Fadi Sargere who tries to help his Iraqi friends forget the war they fled. Deb's report begins a series of reports on NPR's Morning Edition about displaced Iraqis.

In coming days, I’ll be writing more about what’s needed (and past needed) from the international community, U.S. administration, and Congress to respond to the needs of millions of displaced Iraqis and the overwhelmed governments that are hosting them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

60 Minutes Fails to Hold Blackwater CEO to Account

I've got to sound off this morning. Last night 60 Minutes had an opportunity to hold Blackwater to account for the wrongful killings of 17 innocent civilians at Baghdad's Nisour Square on September 16th. Instead, we got a fluff piece.

In her 9-minute interview with Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan lobbed softball question after softball question, and when she did ask more difficult questions, she seemed to do all that she could to sugar-coat them. It got so bad that I had to remind myself that I was watching an investigative report by an award-winning TV newsmagazine, and not a PR video for Blackwater.

While the FBI's investigation into the Blackwater shooting deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis may be ongoing, there is already a damning case to be made. Neither the U.S. military nor Iraqi investigators have found any evidence of an attack on the Blackwater guards that justified their hail of bullets on innocent bystanders.

The Nisour Square incident is not the first involving Blackwater and the loss of innocent lives. According to Blackwater’s own incident reports, the security firm has been involved in at least 195 ‘escalation of force’ incidents in Iraq since 2005. In 80% of those cases, the company reports that its people fired first. Furthermore, the company acknowledges that (prior to the Sept. 16th incident) it was involved in 16 Iraqi civilian casualties and 162 incidents with property damage, primarily to Iraqi civilian vehicles.

Blackwater has also failed to properly vet and train its men. The company has terminated one out of seven workers for wrongful conduct, including wrongful conduct that has resulted in the loss of life. Last Christmas Eve, a drunken Blackwater worker shot and killed Raheem Khalif, an Iraqi assigned to the personal security detail of Iraqi vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi. Raheem was shot three times.

When questioned about this incident at a recent congressional hearing, Erik Prince shrugged “We can’t flog him.” Apparently not. Up until now, Blackwater and its men have not been subject to U.S. or Iraqi law.

At the end of the 60 Minutes segment, reporter Lara Logan rightly observes: “Many believe Blackwater just doesn’t value Iraqi life.” You think?! But then she closes her report with the following exchange, practically pleading with Mr. Prince to say the right thing.
60 Minutes: I know you said that the loss of innocent life is a tragedy. Do you regret it? (pause) Do you wish it never happened?

Prince: Absolutely. But I wish there were no major insurgency in Iraq either. I regret that more. I regret the poor Iraqi family who’s trying to send their kids to school and worried about them getting blown up while they’re walking. Or a suicide bomber that blows up a market while the wife is getting groceries.

60 Minutes: People want to know from you, from Blackwater, that, that you wish those people had not been killed. That you wished innocent people didn’t have to die as a result of anything that you’re involved in.

Prince: It is, it is absolutely not our wish that any innocent civilians should ever die.
Why is Lara Logan so afraid to ask hard questions about the wrongful deaths of innocent Iraqis, and to hold security contractors like Blackwater accountable for its failure to protect noncombatants during its operations?

I can’t fault CBS overall because CBS Evening News with Katie Couric is among the few media outlets that bothered to feature an interview with one of the victims of the Sept. 16 Blackwater shootout. Here’s an excerpt of the report filed by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer: Hassan Jabbar, a lawyer, was almost one of them, shot in the back as he tried to escape. Now - a month later - his body is healing, but his faith in America is broken. “They pretend it’s democracy,” he weeps. “But they’re killing people.”

CBS News also interviews two Americans who had formerly been under the protective services of Blackwater: Adam Hobson, who was working as a political aide in Baghdad in 2005, and Janessa Gans, a former U.S. official who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. Both Hobson and Gans agree that Blackwater’s “protection at any cost” approach undermines U.S. efforts in Iraq.

In a recent letter to the LA Times, Janessa Gans writes: We would careen around corners, jump road dividers, reach speeds in excess of 100 mph and often cross over to the wrong side of the street, oncoming traffic be damned. I began to wonder whether my meetings, intended to further U.S. policy goals and improve the lives of Iraqis, were doing more harm than good ... how many enemies were we creating?

Indeed, how many Mr. Prince?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Senate passes The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

As an advocate for peace in Iraq, it's not every day that I can share a victory with you. But today, thanks to EPIC's supporters and concerned citizens like you, I am pleased to announce a major victory in support of Iraq’s most vulnerable refugees.

On Friday, Sept. 28, the U.S. Senate passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act as an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization bill. Originally introduced by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) last June as S.1651, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act faced heavy opposition from the Bush Administration. But concerned citizens like you helped us fight back, sending more than 2,000 letters to your Senators urging action on behalf of Iraqi refugees. Many of you followed up last week with phone calls. Together, all of these efforts added up to make a real difference.

The Kennedy-Smith amendment marks an important first step by the U.S. Senate to address one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Among its provisions, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act:
  • Requires the State Department to provide a comprehensive plan for assisting countries in the region -- especially Iraq, Jordan and Syria -- that are struggling to meet the needs of millions of displaced Iraqis;

  • Creates Minister Counselors in Iraq and throughout the region to better coordinate refugee processing and emergency aid;

  • Establishes mechanisms for processing refugees from within Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Egypt;

  • Provides up to 5,000 special immigrant visas (SIVs) yearly for Iraqis who worked with the United States and protection or immediate removal from Iraq of SIV applicants who are in imminent danger;

  • Allows Iraqis who belong to a community facing persecution or at risk for having worked with a U.S. government agency, contractor, media organization or NGO to petition for resettlement in the U.S.; and

  • Requires the Department of Homeland Security to report on plans to improve resettlement process.
In the days ahead, EPIC will work to ensure the Kennedy-Smith amendment remains in tact as the Defense Reauthorization bill moves toward final passage in conference committee and the President's signature. We are also working to advance even stronger legislation in the House, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer's (D-OR) Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act (H.R.2265) and a new bill introduced by Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) that would increase U.S. aid to Iraq and countries in the region struggling to meet the needs of 4.3 million displaced Iraqis.

Senate passage of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act is an encouraging first step, but it must not be the last. Until there is peace in Iraq and innocent civilians are safe, you can count on EPIC to continue to make our presense felt in Washington.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Senator Ted Kennedy on Passage of The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

The Honorable Edward (Ted) Kennedy is the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts (1962 - present) and the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship. He is also a Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services and Joint Economic Committees, and chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. In June he introduced The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act as an important step by the U.S. Senate to help better protect Iraq's most vulnerable refugees and address one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Thanks in part to the efforts of EPIC members and readers like you, the Senate passed a modified version of this important bill on Friday. The following speech was delivered shortly afterwards by Sen. Kennedy.

The late Arthur Helton, perhaps our country’s greatest advocate for the rights of refugees wrote, “Refugees matter…for a wide variety of reasons…Refugees are a product of humanity’s worst instincts – the willingness of some persons to oppress others – as well as some of its best instincts – the willingness of many to assist and protect the helpless…”.

A year later after he wrote those words, Arthur Helton was killed in Baghdad in 2003 when a bomb destroyed the UN headquarters in Iraq.

His words still resonate today, especially when we consider the immense human cost of the war in Iraq, and its tragic effect on the millions of Iraqis – men, women, and children – who have fled their homes and their country to escape the violence of a nation at war with itself.

These brave and heroic Iraqis work with the American military, staff our Embassy, and work with American organizations to support our mission in Iraq. They are among the four million Iraqi refugees who have been forced from their homes. They are the people we have an obligation to help.

Instead of protection, we have offered them bureaucracy and doublespeak, false words and dubious hopes. Despite the overwhelming need, the U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Iraqis this fiscal year.

Last night the Senate acted and stood up to help Iraqi refugees. I want to thank Senators Levin and Senators McCain for adopting my amendment, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007, cosponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators: Senators Smith, Levin, Hagel, Biden, Brownback, Lieberman, Leahy, Snowe, Durbin, Voinovich, Feinstein, Collins, Obama, Dole, Menendez, Mikulski, and Clinton.

The need is especially urgent for those whose work for the United States has put them in danger. Because they supported us, insurgents have repeatedly threatened to kill them. Many have lost their homes, their property, and their livelihoods. They face ongoing threats every single day. Some have fled the country and are waiting in refugee camps, and others are in hiding. All of them hope that the United States will not forget their sacrifices.

Still others have tried to flee, only to be stopped at the border, trapped in a country that cannot protect them, abandoned by a country—our country—that they believed would set them free. Others continue their work, living in fear of the day that the insurgents punish them for working with Americans.

They are women such as Sarah, whose husband worked as an interpreter for the Coalition Forces in a combat hospital. Although he kept his job secret, insurgents discovered his identity. They broke into the family home, kidnapped her and released her only after torturing and raping her. The family fled to a neighboring country where they have waited for almost a year in the hopes of qualifying for refugee status. Sarah’s husband has been forced to return to Iraq. Each day that passes without assistance brings the rest of the family closer to an involuntary return to Iraq. She wrote, “Dear gentlemen, I put my suffering between your hands as my hope in you is great that you will hear our calling.”

And they are men such as Sami, who worked for USAID. He received several death threats – one in the form of a blood-soaked bullet sealed in an envelope. Sami pressed on, despite the threats, in order to help improve local governments and strengthen civil society. In June 2006, a group of men armed with machine guns, attempted to kidnap his pregnant wife and two-year-old son outside their home. The attack was thwarted, but his wife nearly miscarried and their son suffered from prolonged shock. Sami and his family fled to Jordan, where they live day-to-day, waiting for the labyrinthine process to rule on their refugee case.

Our government owes these Iraqis an immense debt of gratitude. Many American employees owe their lives to these Iraqis.

Despite the clear and present danger many Iraqis face based on their ties to the United States, their religious affiliation, or their work with media, nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations, the vast majority of Iraqi refugees must go through a long and complicated referral process of approximately eight to ten months, in which the United Nations serves as an intermediary. There are no provisions for conducting refugee screenings within Iraq – as there should be.

In a recent cable, Ambassador Crocker asked the Administration to reconsider its practices. He estimates that under current practices, it would take more than two years to process the over 10,000 referrals made by the U.N. As Ambassador Crocker noted, “Clearly, this is too long. Refugees who have fled Iraq continue to be a vulnerable population while living in Jordan and Syria.”

Ambassador Crocker asked for the authority to process refugees in Iraq. He asked for the authority to provide special immigrant visas for those who have worked in good faith with our government in Iraq. He asked to expedite the processing of refugee claims to save lives. Surely, we can all agree with Ambassador Crocker that delay is unacceptable. We must clearly do better by these Iraqis who have sacrificed so much for the United States.

The amendment approved by the Senate last night will cut through the red tape. It requires the Secretary of State to establish a refugee processing program in Iraq and in countries in the region for Iraqis threatened because of their association with the United States Government. Those Iraqis who worked with our government will be able to apply directly to the United States in Iraq – rather than going through the United Nations referral system outside Iraq.

It authorizes 5,000 special immigrant visas yearly for five years for Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. Government in Iraq and are threatened as a result. It also allows Iraqis in the United States who have been denied asylum because conditions in Iraq changed after Saddam Hussein’s government fell, to have their cases re-heard.

Surely, we cannot resettle all of Iraq’s refugees in the United States, but we need to do our part. America has a special obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis who now have a bulls-eye on their back because of their association with our government.

Mr. President, I had the honor of meeting Sgt. Joseph Seemiller, a young man who is haunted by the military motto, “Leave no man behind.” Sgt. Seemiller is dedicated to helping the translator he was forced to leave behind in Iraq. On countless occasions, his translator helped to avoid several American and Iraqi casualties. He braved innumerable death threats and the horrific murder of his brother, finally fleeing to Syria where he has waited for more than two years for a chance to be resettled in the U.S.

Those words haunt us all. I’m delighted that the Senate has taken this important step to honor our commitment to the brave men and women whose lives are at risk.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Update & Talking Points on The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

When General David Petraeus testified before the House of Representatives, he was asked by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) whether the U.S. has an obligation to protect Iraqi refugees. In response, Gen. Patraeus expressed strong personal feelings about the issue and confirmed that many courageous Iraqis are standing up and trying to contribute to rebuilding Iraq. "We have an obligation towards them," declared the General.

Both Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker also mentioned the displacement of millions of Iraqis as a major concern regarding the stability of Iraq and the region. But even more revealing have been the Ambassador's cables to the State Department, the most recent of which was leaked earlier this week.

On Monday, the front page of the Washington Post ran the headline: "Crocker Blasts Refugee Process." The Post reports:
In his missive, Crocker said the admission of Iraqi refugees to the United States remains bogged down by "major bottlenecks" resulting from security reviews conducted by the departments of State and Homeland Security. Applicants must wait eight to 10 months from the time they are referred to U.S. authorities by the U.N. refugee agency before they set foot in the United States, he said.

"Resettlement takes too long," Crocker wrote.

Each DHS case officer in Jordan can interview only four cases a day on average because of the in-depth questioning required, and just a handful of officers were in the region, partly because Syria refuses to issue visas to DHS personnel, Crocker said. "It would take this team alone almost two years to complete" interviews on 10,000 U.N. referrals, he estimated.

As more Iraqis flee, he noted, delays are "likely to grow considerably."

"Refugees who have fled Iraq continue to be a vulnerable population while living in Jordan and Syria," he wrote. "The basis for . . . resettlement is the deteriorating protection environment in these countries."

Crocker suggested fast-tracking security checks for Iraqis, doubling the number of interviewing officers in Jordan and continuing to push Syria to issue visas. But he also suggested what he called "real alternatives," such as allowing State Department officers to conduct interviews, arranging DHS interviews by video from Washington or allowing Iraqis who work for the U.S. Embassy to go through the process in Iraq, instead of outside the country.
The Ambassador's recommendations are consistent with The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, a recently introduced amendment (No. 2872) to the Defense Authorization bill now before the Senate. Announced at a press conference on Tuesday (for more about the press conference, see our Guest Blog by Jen Smyers of Church World Service), the amendment is sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) with the support of Senators Joe Biden (D-DE), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Barak Obama (D-IL), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

IF EITHER OF YOUR SENATORS IS NOT LISTED ABOVE, THEY NEED TO HEAR FROM YOU TODAY! Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your Senator(s). A vote is expected as early as tomorrow, so please call as soon as possible.

Passage of The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act will require winning the support of at least 60 Senators, so we need your help to demonstrate at the state level that Americans care about the refugees and victims created by ongoing conflict in Iraq.

Here are some talking points:
  • I'm calling to urge my Senator to vote for the Kennedy-Smith-Brownback-Lieberman-Levin amendment (No. 2872) on Iraqi refugees to the Department of Defense Authorization bill.
  • This bipartisan amendment addresses one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time, and it has been endorsed by a broad spectrum of organizations, including religious organizations, refugee organizations and the American Conservative Union.
  • The U.S. promised to admit 7,000 Iraqis between October 1, 2006 and September 30, 2007. To date, less than 900 have been allowed to enter. We can do better. Our country has an obligation to keep the faith with the many brave Iraqis whose lives are in jeopardy because of their association with U.S. agencies in Iraq, including NGOs.
  • The U.S. lags far behind other countries in providing safe haven for Iraqi refugees. Syria and Jordan currently host more than 2 million Iraqi refugees. And over the past year and a half, Sweden (pop. 9 million) has allowed more than 18,000 Iraqis to resettle in their country. Over that same time period, the U.S. admitted less than 1,000!
  • This amendment would eliminate the current requirement that Iraqi refugees must apply to the United Nations before our government will consider their applications, and it expedites the process for those who are in serious danger because of their association with the United States.
While you call your Senate offices, I will be on Capitol Hill going door to door to generate support for this important bill which could make the difference between life and death for many Iraqi refugee families at risk. Let me know how it goes on your end by sending me a quick email to EGustafson (at) and I'll keep you posted on our efforts here in Washington. Thank you for making EPIC one of the most energized networks in support of innocent Iraqi civilians in need.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Jen Smyers on The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act

Jen Smyers is Associate for Immigration and Refugee Policy of Church World Service, an organization founded in 1948 to serves as the relief, development, and refugee assistance ministry of 35 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican denominations in the United States. From New Orleans to Iraq, CWS works worldwide to meet human needs and foster self-reliance for all whose way is hard.

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) held a press conference today to stress the importance of The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act(S.1651). Joining him were Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Joe Lieberman (ID-CT). In addition to having a bipartisan cast of Senators, what really turned heads were the prominent conservatives in attendance, including the President of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist; the Chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene; and U.S. Army Sergeant and Iraq War veteran Joe Seemiller.

Yes, you read that correctly: Senator Ted Kennedy alongside Grover Norquist and David Keene. When legislation draws support from prominent conservatives and progressives alike, it tells you a lot about the importance of the legislation.

In his opening remarks, Senator Kennedy declared, “America has a strong obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis who have worked so bravely with us – and have often paid a terrible price for it. Regardless of where we stand on the war with Iraq, we are united in the belief that America has a fundamental obligation…The target of the assassin’s bullet is now on their back, and our government has a responsibility to try and save their lives.”

Senator Brownback echoed those statements, and remarked, “It’s a good day when we can save some lives.” He also emphasized the need to act now, saying “we can not just wait for an end to the violence – we must help displaced persons in Iraq in the meantime.”

As a co-sponsor to the bill, Senator Smith emphasized the non-partisan nature of the amendment, saying, “this doesn’t register with a party, it registers as American, it registers as moral.”

Perhaps the most meaningful statements came from Sergeant Joe Seemiller, who served in Iraq in 2003. His translator, who he referred to as “Sam,” worked side by side with US troops in Mosul, Iraq. Despite repeated attacks on their base, Sam showed up for work every day and told Sergeant Seemiller that as long as he was alive, he would serve with his “fellow soldiers.” After facing several threats on his life, Sam fled to Syria, but not before insurgents shot his brother. Sgt. Seemiller has worked for the past two years to get Sam to American, but to no avail. He concluded his emotionally charged statements by saying, “there are only two types of people that would oppose this bill. Those who do not know all the facts, and those who can not see beyond themselves.”

The bill has gained broad support among both Republicans and Democrats, and is cosponsored by Senators Smith, Brownback, Lieberman, Biden, Hagel, Leahy, Snowe, Durbin, Feinstein, Obama, Menendez, Levin, and Voinovich. Click here to read Senator Kennedy’s statement.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Death Toll Rises in Yazidi Blasts

Initial reports about the August 14 bombings in the northern Iraqi towns of Qataniyah and Adnaniyah indicated that anywhere between 60 (according to the US military) and 500 Iraqis (according to local authorities and health officials) had been killed. Sadly, the largest of these figures is being confirmed as each day passes, meaning over 500 have been killed along with another 1,500 wounded.

This devastating attack has far-reaching implications for minority populations all over Iraq. Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, wrote a somber op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday expressing concern for the safety of "Christians and non-Muslims in Iraq". Indeed, she goes so far as to say that the very existence of such minority populations is at risk:

"Sixty years ago, Iraq's flourishing Jewish population, a third of Baghdad, fled in the wake of coordinated bombings and violence against them. Today, a handful of Jews remain...

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argues that reducing violence will help all Iraqis, but non-Muslims may have been purged from Iraq by the time the dust settles. It could already be too late for the Mandeans, followers of John the Baptist who have roots in ancient Babylon. A spokesman of the sect told the commission that only 5,000 Mandeans remain."
Upon reading this article I decided to call Suhaib Nashi, General Secretary of the Mandaeans Associations Union, with whom I had advocated on behalf of Iraqi refugees on Capitol Hill this summer. As it turned out, it was Suhaib who quoted the 5,000 estimate, which "is probably an exaggeration, meaning there are at most only 5,000 left". According to Suhaib, if things continue to deteriorate in Iraq and minorities like the Mandaeans are expelled to various parts of the world, it could spell the end of the Mandaeans.

Religious and ethnic minorities require a cohesive community where they can prosper. As Nina Shea argues, "It is in America's national and moral interests to help Iraq's Christians and other non-Muslims. The most vulnerable must be given asylum. We must also help those determined to stay". The U.S. faces an opportunity to do what is responsible by creating communities for religious minorities here in the United States, by working with other host countries to provide a safe and secure home, and by protecting them in the region as a whole.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New UN Resolution Honors Memory of Peacebuilders Past

Back in August of 2003, I was far too busy finishing my final semester abroad in the United Kingdom to take particular note of an attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 23 UN workers including High Commissioner and Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Sure, I followed world news, as most students of International Relations do. But for me, this was just another sad headline. I had no idea, at the time, just how important it was.

For the international NGO community and anyone who had ever worked or been connected with the UN, the August 19th, 2003 UN Headquarters bombing was like September 11th or the assassination of JFK -- they can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened. It was perhaps even more critical for the Iraqi people.

Sergio Vieira de Mello"Sergio de Mello's death is catastrophic," wrote a young woman blogger in Iraq, known as Riverbend. "We are all a little bit dazed. He was, during these last few months, the best thing that seems to have happened to Iraq. In spite of the fact that the UN was futile in stopping the war, seeing someone like de Mello gave people some sort of weak hope. It gave you the feeling that, no, the Americans couldn't run amuck in Baghdad without the watchful of eye of the international community."

The top UN official in Iraq at the time,
Sergio Vieira de Mello was an eloquent gentleman committed to peace and respected for his role in coordinating UN efforts in nations from East Timor to Kosovo. Other senior officials killed that day included Chris Klein-Beekman, the UNICEF coordinator for Iraq, and Nadia Younes, de Mello’s Chief of Staff. This was not only a tragic loss of renowned diplomats and humanitarians, but also the single worst attack on the UN in the history of the organization.

At the time, the Bush administration was keen on getting the UN into Iraq as a fig leaf of legitimacy for the U.S. mission of regime change, but resisted the UN playing a greater role. Mr. de Mello was a key figure in expanding UN presence and responsibility, and the August 2003 bombing was a critical development for Iraqis who worried about
Paul Bremer and the U.S. role in Iraq. Subsequent to the bombing, the UN pulled all but essential personnel out of Iraq and dramatically scaled back its operations for months. To this day, the main office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) is in Amman, Jordan, not Baghdad. It was a devastating setback for those who wanted the UN and international community to play a greater role in helping Iraqis rebuild and determine their own future.

Nevertheless, the UN continued to play a critical role. UN Commissioner Carlos Valenzuela's team oversaw Iraqi elections and provided technical assistance for the formation of the Iraqi Independent Electoral Committee (IIEC). The Four years later,
a new UNSC Resolution helps to honor the legacy of de Mello and his colleagues by building upon their work and goals. Approving a 12-month mandate extension for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the Security Council "expanded the world body’s political role in Iraq, aimed at bringing together the strife-torn country’s rival factions, gaining broader support from neighbouring countries, and tackling the deepening humanitarian crisis." Among other things, the measure authorized the head of UNAMI to "advise, support and assist" the Iraqi Government in advancing an "inclusive, national dialogue and political reconciliation," reviewing the Constitution, setting internal boundaries, and dealing with the millions of Iraqis who have fled their homes.

EPIC welcomes this expanded UN role, although we hope to see further details from the UN Security Council and the Secretary General's office. And we hope you all will join us in remembering Sergio de Mello, his colleagues, and all those who have died trying to build peace in Iraq.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Brutal Attack on Yazidi Civilians

Tuesday was an exceptionally grim day for Iraq. Trucks loaded with fuel detonated in Qataniyah and Adnaniyah, devastating infrastructure and killing hundreds. Estimates now range between 300-500 dead, with entire families wiped out in the coordinated attack. Newspaper outlets such as the Telegraph are calling it the deadliest attack since the 2003 invasion and "one of the deadliest global attacks" since 9-11.

Qataniyah and Adnaniyah lie in northern Iraq and are populated by the Yazidi, who ascribe to a pre-Islamic religion.

This attack, like many others, targeted civilians, but is distinguished by a number of things. First, the sheer scale of the attack and level of destruction sets it apart from others. Second, that it occured in the northern Kurdish region populated by a small religious minority shows the commitment of terrorist groups to attack "soft targets", even if it means going to the most remote areas of Iraq to do so.

While such attacks can dash hope that something can be done to protect innocent civilians in Iraq, there are opportunities for everyone, including concerned citizens like you and me, to make a difference.

NPR's Morning Edition interviewed Elias Kassem today, a Yazidi immigrant who resettled in the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. Today, he lives with his wife in Lincoln, Nebraska where, after learning they lost family in the attack, Lincolnians reached out to support and console them. "I was thinking of leaving Lincoln", Elias said, "But it's changed my view of how I look at Lincoln, especially the people. I'll probably never leave Lincoln."

I was proud to hear the story of this Yazidi who has been welcomed into the Lincoln community. It's a story that speaks to the American tradition. And minorities such as the Yazidi are exactly the sort of population that the "Crisis in Iraq Act" (S. 1651) and the "Resposibility to Iraqi Refugees Act" (H.R. 2265) aim to protect. We have the opportunity to continue our tradition of moral leadership by supporting these bills in the House and Senate and to provide protection for those who cannot protect themselves. It's our opportunity to support positive change for the people of Iraq.

[Image: The Chermera temple (meaning “40 Men” in the Yezidi dialect) on the highest peak on the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.]
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