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U.S. closes door on a onetime Iraq ally

The man who had fought Al Qaeda in Iraq sat in the waiting room of the immigration office. He watched others go up before him. After several hours, they called his name: Saad Oraibi Ghafoori.

In a way, the waiting burned him. He had once led more than 600 men in Baghdad; Iraqi officials and U.S. commanders came to him for help. Now he lived in a nondescript home in Jordan’s capital with an upset wife and two restless children -- a 9-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl -- who had been hoping for more than a year to get the call to go to America.

He had sat in classes given by the International Organization for Migration, learning about U.S. apartment rental prices and how to apply for food stamps. He was ready to do whatever the Americans wanted: If they wished him to train U.S. forces heading to Iraq, he would do it; if they wanted him to fight in Afghanistan, he would go.

He missed being a soldier. He hadn’t gone to a shooting range in more than a year. When he heard fireworks, he confessed, it made his blood pump. The 36-year-old ex-paramilitary commander, who once patrolled west Baghdad in camouflage, had developed a slight pot belly in a year of sitting at home.

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In the office that day in July, Ghafoori was finally summoned to a table. The case officer was blunt: He had been rejected and there was no point in appealing the case.

The letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services read: “As a matter of discretion, your application for refugee resettlement . . . has been denied.”

He looked at the other Iraqis around him. He squirmed a bit. They had already recognized him and knew him by his nom de guerre, Abu Abed, the man who had ignited Baghdad’s Sunni Arab revolt against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“I broke that day,” he said. “I saw myself as the biggest loser in the world.”

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Last year, the U.S. government removed hurdles that had made it difficult for its Iraqi employees whose lives were endangered to flee to America. It also cleared similar obstacles for Iraqis working with U.S. companies. The number of Iraqis accepted in America through the State Department’s refugee assistance program jumped from 1,600 to nearly 14,000 in 2008 and is expected to reach 18,000 this year.

But Ghafoori’s case poses a policy challenge for the U.S. government. How should it handle the pool of 100,000 paramilitary fighters called the Sons of Iraq, many of them former insurgents, who have little in common with the Iraqi translators and civil servants that the refugee assistance program aims to help?

Does the United States have any obligation to men like Ghafoori, whom the U.S. military once funded and fought with against a common enemy?

Until now, accepting a man who may have at one time fought the U.S. military, a man who admits he killed his enemies, has been considered politically untenable in post- 9/11 America, where immigration policies have been guided by the fear of another attack on U.S. soil.

“Abu Abed confounds our sort of virtuous naivete of American foreign policy,” said Kirk Johnson, an advocate for Iraqi civilian employees with the U.S. military and State Department. “We want to go fight evil and come back victors, and that’s the extent of most people’s comprehension -- and they don’t realize in that process there are all kinds of shifting allegiances and muck and murk.”

Asked about the dilemma posed by fighters such as Ghafoori, the Department of Homeland Security, which screens all those applying for refugee status, said it could not comment on specific cases and referred the matter to the State Department.

The State Department said it has not formulated a policy for the paramilitary leaders, whose history in Iraq’s insurgency has largely blocked them from moving to the United States, where the law rejects anyone seeking refugee status who has persecuted others.

“There is no policy specific to the Sons of Iraq or other U.S.-supported militias,” a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official referred back to the regular refugee process as the primary way for the fighters to come to the United States, although it is a near certainty that most will be rejected because of their controversial pasts.

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Commanders such as Ghafoori, who have found themselves targeted by armed Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim groups, as well as by elements in Baghdad’s government, have few options other than a dangerous existence in Iraq or precarious exile in a neighboring country.

Ghafoori hopes to find a way to reverse the U.S. decision, with support from friends in the American military.

One of the few routes available to him would be Homeland Security’s Significant Public Benefit Parole program, which is run in close association with the Pentagon to bring in people who served the war efforts. But the program operates in near secrecy and is the equivalent of winning the lottery: The combination of official backing and luck must align to bring the person inside.

American officers who know Ghafoori and his contribution to the U.S. military buildup in 2007 are worried about his future.

“Abu Abed has no country now. . . . His work saved American and Iraqi lives, and now he is sitting in Jordan with no one,” said one senior U.S. officer, still stationed in Iraq, who is not authorized to speak with reporters. “The irony is his work is every bit as important as translators or contractors and probably more dangerous . . . and then he gets arbitrarily rejected.”

After forging a partnership with the Americans in summer 2007, Ghafoori reached dizzying heights in Baghdad and became a pioneering figure in the Sons of Iraq movement. But he was also one of the first of the new paramilitary leaders to fall.

Some who know him say his ego swelled and he had become blind to the fact that his rarefied position as the enforcer of his neighborhood, Amiriya, had passed by spring 2008, that the national government was poised to assert its role in the city, and that the Americans would back the move.

His detractors called him brutal, but then Ghafoori never hid the fact that he killed many of those suspected of being in Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was kill or be killed, and he makes it clear that he often was compelled to resort to the former.

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Wounded in an assassination attempt, probably carried out by political rivals or Al Qaeda in Iraq, he left the country for treatment in Jordan in April 2008. It marked the beginning of his exile.

In Jordan, he and his wife pinned their hopes on going to the United States through the refugee assistance program. They had commendations and letters of praise from U.S. generals.

In the best circumstances, the immigration process is unpredictable for Iraqis. Even civilians who worked with the U.S. military or State Department have found themselves barred for seemingly arbitrary reasons -- based on service in a military unit during Saddam Hussein’s time, or having paid a kidnap ransom to an armed group to free a relative, which the U.S. technically considers support for terrorists.

Ghafoori’s history is shrouded in mystery. Some say he was a member of the Islamic Army, a group that battled the Americans, which he denies. He acknowledges close ties with members of armed factions, but insists that he never attacked an American. He also says he worked as a U.S. informer starting in 2004.

“He is a fighter, but you don’t defeat insurgents with someone who passes out Girl Scout cookies. He did what was necessary to bring security to that neighborhood,” said Army Col. Dale Kuehl, who worked alongside Ghafoori in Amiriya. “He was fighting for his country.”

Kuehl believes Ghafoori would thrive in America, and rejects the notion that the onetime fighter poses a security threat.

“To say he can’t function in our society is false. I’ve seen him with his kids and people on the street,” Kuehl said. “He is a normal person like anyone else. Would I mind him [living] down the street from me? No, I wouldn’t mind.”

Kuehl warned that turning away a figure such as Ghafoori sends a bad message as the U.S. engages in counterinsurgency tactics around the world.

“The unintentional message, but a message nonetheless, is if you do something for us, we may not take care of you,” Kuehl said.

After being rejected, Ghafoori was despondent. His wife, Khalida, threatened to leave him and take their children back to Baghdad, even though they would be an easy target for his enemies. Sometimes, Ghafoori drove his car to Amman’s hillsides to escape. The landscape reminded him of northern Iraq’s mountains, where he spent time with his mother’s Kurdish family.

Gazing down at the Jordanian capital, he listened to Mariah Carey songs. One minute he smiled, the next he scowled like a fighter.

“I have a side that thrives on fighting and chaos,” he said, “and then I have a peaceful side that just wants to be left alone.”

Eventually, he pulled himself together and persuaded his wife to stay.

His wife longed to work again as a schoolteacher and wanted her children to be able to play in the street and to go to school like normal kids.

“She wants to have a life and to teach and to have her children to grow up to be somebody,” Ghafoori said, after listening to his wife vent her frustrations.

He sat on his couch, with the television on, and complained that he felt like a woman. The family had moved at least three times in the last year because of threats.

His enemies, he said, were gloating about what happened to him. “They call me the tissue paper for the Americans,” he said. “They used me when I was needed and threw me away in the end.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com.

Staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report


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