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Thrown to the Assassins

They cheered the U.S. invasion; they offered to help, signed on as translators, risked everything they had to work for the United States. But when they had to run for their lives, America slammed the door.

On the day the American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Abather Abdul Hussein and his wife, Balqes Abdel Mohammed, threw flowers. Literally. After a lifetime of turmoil and tyranny, the couple fervently believed the invasion would bring peace. Abather joined U.S. "democratization" efforts, such as a project to create a governing council for his neighborhood, and he occasionally ended up in the good-news Iraq stories that still seemed plausible in those days; one U.S. paper ran a five-column photo of him perched on a classroom chair surrounded by American soldiers, with a story about the "new Iraq."

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These days, Abather and his young family are among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled in fear for their lives. After months spent dodging insurgents who had targeted them for supporting the Americans, he and Balqes are relieved to have escaped—and bitter, like thousands of fellow refugees, that the superpower for which they risked their lives has abandoned them.

A short man who bundles his shattered body in layers against the desert's winter chill, the 34-year-old Abather is polite and relaxed, with an easy smile. An engaging conversationalist even in broken English, he loves to talk about Baghdad, his infant daughter, and his wife, an outspoken woman several years his senior, whom he calls a genius. "When we met she was a professor at Baghdad University," he boasts. "I was her student. When she walked into a room, hundreds of people would stand to pay her respect." Considering that his life savings will run out in two months, that he can't work legally in Jordan, and that he could be deported at any moment, Abather is remarkably stoic, though the anxiety leaks out in tics. He chain-smokes cheap Craven A cigarettes, crushing the charred filters in an overflowing ashtray; when Balqes complains, he sheepishly offers that "smoking is my only work." It's not quite true—his one other job during the past 18 months has been recounting his nightmare, over and over again, to border guards, embassy workers, and aid agencies. In December, he reluctantly told it to me, pulling documents from a worn leather folder to corroborate the details.

The story began after the ouster of Saddam, when Abather and Balqes, like many Iraqis, launched a de-Baathification program of their own. Their target was the dean who had been Balqes' boss at Baghdad University (and who, as Abather tells it, had forced her out when she resisted joining the Baath Party). Balqes wanted her job back; one day Abather confronted the dean, and tempers flared. American soldiers broke up the brawl, bound Abather's wrists with a zip tie, and interrogated him. He explained Balqes' gripe and what the loss of her job had meant for their family, including their 3-year-old son and Balqes' 14-year-old son from a previous marriage (her first husband had been killed in the Iran-Iraq War). Though he held a master's degree in engineering, Abather hadn't been able to get a job in the doldrums of sanctions-era Iraq, so he was scraping together a living repairing watches, his wife and children crammed into his father's small home.

"The soldiers were very understanding," Abather recalls. "I was impressed." They offered the family an apartment in a place called Iraqi Village, a compound near the Baghdad airport where Saddam had housed orphans he was grooming to become fedayeen loyalists. In return, the couple translated for the Americans, and eventually the Washington National Guard's 1st Battalion 303rd Armored Regiment hired Balqes as an interpreter, at $15 per day. Abather ended up leading a U.S. Army-contracted security squad with a monthly salary of $130. Learning that he was an engineer, soldiers later gave him lucrative reconstruction assignments. He started an engineering firm and worked with contractors such as ABB and Kellogg, Brown and Root; in one heady year, Abather's contracts would mushroom from a few thousand dollars to an $862,000 electrification project (later canceled because he couldn't procure the needed equipment).

Abather and Balqes glow with wonder when they speak of those days, of earning a good living and having their own home for the first time. Most of all, Abather enjoyed hanging out with the Americans. He seems to remember every soldier he ever met: Captain Philips and Sergeant Buchard gave his children toys, a soccer ball, and school stationery; Lieutenant Glenn Allen got so close to the family they called him "Uncle Allen." (Allen confirmed Abather's story in emails to me, calling him and Balqes "very helpful individuals" who "risked their lives by meeting with us.") It was as if they had suddenly found themselves citizens of the 51st state.

And so, in October 2004, when Abather got his first death threat, he thought it was a joke. It was handwritten, tucked under the windshield wiper of his car inside Iraqi Village, a gated community with American checkpoints at both its entrances; how, Abather wondered, could an insurgent even have gotten in? The note read:


Leave your work with the Americans. Otherwise you will be killed by jihadis because you are a traitor.

Jihad Army

Then the killings began. Lieutenant Allen had once given Abather a photo depicting two American soldiers with five of their Iraqi friends. Three of the Iraqis were assassinated in short order. Abather began to notice cars following him, and a few times shots were fired at his car. The anonymous notes grew increasingly menacing. Eventually, Iraqi Village felt so dangerous that Abather and Balqes moved the family back to his father's house. A death threat arrived there almost immediately. Still Abather continued working with the Americans.

One day in August 2005, Abather was driving Balqes, six months pregnant with their second child, to a doctor's appointment. At an intersection, he noticed a gold car parked by the road; suddenly the two men in it leveled guns at him. "This is the end," Abather thought, and then a U.S. patrol appeared and the assailants vanished into traffic. Within days, Abather and Balqes had sold off their belongings and fled to Amman. Their troubles had only just begun.

The U.S. Embassy in Amman is an attractive, Arabian-style fortress, heavily guarded machine-gunners in Ford pickups. It sits high on a hillside, and the view is so phenomenal that you can imagine your gaze reaching all the way to the Iraqi border, some 200 miles away.

In the foreground, Amman's rolling mosaic of pale, boxy limestone buildings shimmers against the azure sky. At its edges, in dank apartments on outlying hillsides, lives a substantial portion of Baghdad's educated middle class. Almost all fled in a panic, after getting death threats or seeing loved ones murdered; many were targeted by insurgents or jihadis because they supported, or worked for, the Americans.

Of Iraq's 27 million prewar population, about 1 in 8—some 3.4 million people—have left their homes since the invasion, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (unhcr), and more than half of those have ended up abroad. Refugees International labels this the world's fastest-growing humanitarian crisis. Yet the Bush administration has refused to so much as acknowledge the refugees' plight, let alone help them get to safety or even provide basic humanitarian aid.

In the past, notes Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch, the United States has often aided those persecuted for supporting it; since the Vietnam War, 1 million Vietnamese refugees have been resettled in the United States, including tens of thousands of South Vietnamese army veterans. But the Bush administration "has abdicated that obligation," says Frelick. "The people who have fled are the ones the administration was relying on to build democracy in Iraq; it would rather ignore them than acknowledge that its initiative has failed."

It was in Jordan that Abather and Balqes discovered the limitations of their friendship with the United States. Lieutenant "Uncle" Allen had emailed the embassy in Amman to explain that the family feared for their lives; he'd even offered to sponsor their relocation "to the safety of the United States." An unsigned email from the embassy commended Allen—"I know that your Iraqi friends appreciate your friendship"—but noted that U.S. visas are "quite difficult" for Iraqis to get. Since 9/11, Middle Easterners in general, and Iraqis in particular, have faced enormous hurdles getting admitted to the United States; until 2005, the Bush administration maintained a total freeze on Iraqis that shut out current refugees as well as hundreds of people who had fled Saddam Hussein's regime years earlier.

The email nonetheless provided instructions on getting a tourist visa, and Abather and Balqes quickly filed their application along with the $200 fee—almost two months' rent. Several months later they were notified that they could visit the United States for up to three months, but that they could not bring their children. They then made repeated visits to the unhcr to apply for official refugee status. As it has with almost 99 percent of the Iraqis who have come through its office in Amman, the agency turned them down.

Abather and Balqes set their sights on a visa to Australia, a major destination for Iraqi refugees, and even hired an Iraqi lawyer there. They waited for months. Their savings dwindled; then their baby fell ill, and the emergency surgery, for an intestinal obstruction, cost $2,100 in cash.

In early June 2006, Abather got a rejection letter from Australia. Around the same time, word came that his father had died of a heart attack. So he went back to Iraq to bury his father, help his mother find a place to live, and buy state-subsidized medicine for his daughter. But when he returned to the Jordanian border less than a week later, he was told he couldn't reenter the country: Having recently suffered two terrorist attacks, Jordan had enacted a ban on entry for Iraqi men aged 17 to 35.

For two days Abather stood on the highway at the border post, beseeching successive shifts of immigration officials. Finally, a guard promised to send the medicine to his family in Amman if he would just go away. Once again Abather headed back to Baghdad. Driving in Baghdad a few days later, he noticed a bmw—the Iraqi gangster's vehicle of choice—in his rearview mirror, closing in. The car forced him off the road; armed men blindfolded him and knocked him unconscious. When he woke up, he was in a tiny room, handcuffed to a chair. Masked men came and went, videotaping as they cursed him as a traitor. They whipped him with a steel cable; six months later, his back was still etched by deep, evenly spaced grooves. "We've been searching for you for a year," his captors told him. Abather recognized the voice of one man, an acquaintance from Iraqi Village who had seemed to befriend the Americans. "I'm sorry your father passed away," the man said. Soon, a bearded imam sentenced Abather to decapitation for collaborating with the United States. Abather barely heard the proceedings. "I was thinking the whole time about my little daughter in Amman." He was told he could save himself by spying on the Americans, but he refused. On the eighth day, the men asked if there was anything he wanted before he died; then they put him on the floor in the back of the bmw and sped off.

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