November 20, 2007
Left to the WolvesBy Rocco DiPippo
There are stories in this world that were it not for the injustice that forever curses humanity, would not need to be told. This is one of them. Still, I am hesitant making it public, since doing so further endangers a man I love like a brother. Since he is now desperate enough to gamble with his life in seeking the justice he needs, justice so far denied, my brother, who is Iraqi, gives me permission to tell his story. Nevertheless, to lessen the odds that harm will come to him and his young family, I withhold his real name and instead refer to him as Nabil, an Arabic name which means "noble."
Nabil helped protect me and my country in a time of war. He risked his life doing it. He should have been protected by the United States for his deeds, but he was not. I am ashamed that my country treated him like that. He deserved better.
I first met Nabil shortly after I arrived in Iraq in October of 2006 to work as a construction manager for an American building contracting company. I was assigned to help manage a project rehabilitating Iraqi Police stations, and he was assigned to that same project.
A talented engineer and a tireless worker, Nabil was an important link between me and the other Westerners who managed the police stations project and directed the Iraqi field engineers who supervised the individual job sites. He was vital to the overall success of the project, as was every Iraqi involved in the project. We Americans would have failed without their contributions, their expertise and their dedication.
In the course of our working relationship, Nabil and I became best friends. We traded conversation about our lives, about our triumphs and disappointments, our families; our respective countries and their cultures and politics. We had long discussions about women, music, sports, politics, art, food, religion and just about everything else that men talk about. In a work environment where disloyalty, cowardice, greed and ruthlessness were common currency, we grew to trust each another completely. We watched each other's backs.
Nabil hated the terrorists rampaging through Iraq, murdering his countrymen and destroying the remnants of his shredded society. But unlike many other Iraqis I knew who were too terrified by the horrific crimes of those terrorists to take action against them, he did. He risked his life against men who drive nails into the hands of their victims, who cut out tongues, who gouge out eyes, who shoot and beat and stab people, who use power drills to bore into the skulls of living, breathing, screaming, writhing human beings and laugh while doing it.
Nabil lived in Doura, one of Baghdad's most dangerous suburbs. Many of his neighbors had been killed in sectarian violence, others had disappeared and had not been heard from again. Terror raged through Doura. The shooting, stabbing and beheading of its inhabitants because of their religious affiliations, or for no particular reason at all, became common.
I remember the time well -- one of the many terrorist groups that surfaced in Baghdad was the so-called "Army of God," an Islamist group whose stated purpose was to cause injustice in order to hasten the return to earth of the Mehdi, the 12th Imam, which according to some Muslims would mark the beginning of the reign of Islam over the earth. Before being destroyed by Coalition forces, the Army of God was notorious for randomly torturing and killing Iraqis, in the most horrible ways.
In Nabil's Doura neighborhood Al Qaeda, and groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, were responsible for most of the killing, torture and crime.
Those were the types of people destroying Nabil's neighborhood. They were also the types of killers who were launching rocket attacks from behind Nabil's house and into Baghdad's Green Zone, where Americans and Iraqis live and work side by side.
Always terrifying to those on the receiving end, those attacks were also often deadly to Green Zone inhabitants. I had survived several near misses when I worked there, as did many other people I knew. But there were also plenty of people who were less fortunate than me -- they were killed or horribly maimed by the blast wave and hot shrapnel that had ripped through their bodies when a rocket landed near them and detonated.
Some nights while hunkered down in his home praying that no killer would break through his door, Nabil could hear the signature "pop" of rockets being launched from a field behind his house. He knew that within seconds after that noise a rocket with 40lbs of explosives in its tip would scream into the Green Zone and detonate, killing or maiming anyone near it when it did. Once, Nabil himself had once come within a whisker of being killed by a rocket when it had punched through the roof of a Green Zone office trailer he and several of his coworkers had just vacated. Soon after that happened, Nabil risked death by walking out into that field behind his house in broad daylight and with a GPS unit marked the exact locations of the rocket launch sites. He gave those locations to American forces, who according to him, never showed up to check them out. He says rocket attacks continued originating from behind his house -- when he finally fled Doura, they were still going on. As far as he knows, he had risked his life for nothing.
It's important to note that Nabil's life was in jeopardy even before he stepped out into the field that day -- he worked for American companies for almost three years. Like all Iraqis who do that, he was automatically marked for death by the terrorists simply because of that association. In spite of that sword hanging over his head, Nabil had further risked death, and almost certainly torture, by taking the chance of getting caught by terrorists as he was mapping out their rocket launch positions.
Stunned by his bravery, and shaken by what I viewed as his recklessness, I asked him why he had taken such a terrible chance with his life. His answer was simple and direct: "I hate the people destroying my country, trying to kill me, my family and my American friends," he said.
This was not all Nabil did to help save Iraqis and Americans. He did much more than just locate and report rocket launch positions near his house. He infiltrated a major Iraqi terrorist group and reported much of what he knew to the FBI and to the US State Department and yet, my country did nothing to protect his life or to reward him for his bravery.
Nabil stumbled into infiltrating the group while attending an uncle's funeral. When he returned to work after the funeral he pulled me aside, a concerned look on his face. "Let's go outside," he said, "I have some information that might help your country win the war. Maybe you can help me get it into the right hands."
We walked outside my office and lit our cigarettes. Then he began to tell me an astounding story; how during his time off from work he had infiltrated a major terror group in Iraq. This group was and continues to be responsible for sectarian murders, bombings and gangster-style criminal activity in the Baghdad area and beyond. It has been a major detriment to bringing security and stability there and to establishing harmony between the many factions that compose Iraq's young government.
Nabil told me what he had seen and heard during the funeral and at the social gatherings related to it. He had been shown how money flowed through the organization; where that money came from and who was getting it. He was let in on the exact locations of its leader's Baghdad safe house, which he secretly photographed and videotaped. By being clever in conversation with other organization members at the funeral he was able to elicit the locations of other leadership safe-houses, which he also photographed and videotaped driving directions to.
In the course of conversations with members of the terrorist group, Nabil was even offered a position working for them. The pitch made to him was blunt. To a man less moral than Nabil it would have been tempting, if not irresistible: "Come work for us and you will be a millionaire within two years," he was told.
Nabil continued speaking, until I told him to stop. I did not want to be in the position of having to choose between the life of a dear friend and the information he had that might help my country win a war. I knew that if Nabil told me everything he knew I would be compelled to report it. If I did that then his testimony would almost certainly be needed to corroborate mine. That would expose him to being found out by terrorists -- the Green Zone is a small place and there are unfriendly eyes there, everywhere.
I believed that the best course of action, both to guarantee Nabil's safety and to make sure his information was put to good use, was to suggest to him that in trade for the information he had, he should seek safety, asylum, in the United States. Simply giving that information, no strings attached, directly to the authorities would not have been in his best interest or in the best interest of his wife, pregnant with their first child.
I mean no unfair criticism of those who gather and analyze information for my country in this time of war, but I see human nature as it is: It is very hard, if not impossible, for most of us to have true concern for those who we neither know well, nor love. I explained to Nabil that that phenomenon would be working against him if he decided to give up the information he had, that such a thing was not personal, just a reality -- that his interrogators would be first interested in the information he had and that concern for his welfare and his family's welfare would come a distant second.
Nabil decided to seek asylum in the US in trade for what he knew. I told him I would help him as much as I could. I let him know that, beyond that, I could make no promises, especially concerning whether or not his wish would be granted.
While in Iraq I had developed a network of Iraqi and Western friends who would help me do good things that were best done quietly, through back channels in a low profile sort of way. My friends would do favors for me, and I would do favors for them. I had helped several Iraqis out of tight spots and had possibly saved some lives in the process. Because of this I knew that I was in a good position to help Nabil.
I contacted the FBI in Baghdad and told an agent there about the nature of Nabil's information. We arranged to meet, which we did, to discuss Nabil's options and the usefulness of the information he had. The FBI agent was tantalized by what I told him. He asked me why I had not contacted the State Department or CIA first. I told him that given their highly politicized natures and their record of subversion and leaks against the Bush Administration, I did not trust my friend's life to either of them. The agent laughed, and from his look I suspected he agreed with me.
With a blanket over his head, and while he lay on the floor of my truck, I drove Nabil to the first meeting with the FBI. After clearing the abandoned building where the meeting was to take place, two FBI agents whisked Nabil inside, and the interrogation and negotiations began. Although Nabil had requested that I be present while he was being interrogated, the agents made me remain outside, since they considered me a journalist and FBI rules forbid the presence of such people during questionings.
Nabil was interrogated by the FBI several times. Then, one afternoon I received a call from one of the agents who told me that they were at the point where they had no choice but to pass him up the ladder to the US State Department, where he would be further questioned. The agent told me that Nabil's information seemed genuine, and well worth further investigation, but that the FBI was not authorized to put an asylum deal together for him. On the other hand, the State Department was.
A few weeks later, I again drove Nabil to the meeting place where he was picked up by workers from the State Department. Nabil told me that during that meeting, they had been impressed by the depth of the information he had -- he had told them a lot, including the location of the terrorist group leader's safe house, but had stopped when they had pressed him to reveal everything he knew. At that point, he reminded them that he needed a guarantee of protection before he would talk further. Once he said that, his State Department interrogator began to balk. It wasn't in her power to grant him asylum, she said, but if he gave up all the information he had, she said she would see what she could do.
At that point, Nabil ended the interview. When he returned to my office he told me, "You were right, they didn't care about me and my family, and they only wanted the information I had. I gave them too much already. I can give them no more, it is too dangerous for me to do."
He said the interview with the State Department people had frightened him since even though he had requested there be no Iraqis present at the interview, there were several in the room when he spoke. Initially, I had demanded that no Iraqis be present during Nabil's FBI interrogations since he didn't need a translator and I knew that just about any Iraqi, under the right set of circumstances, was capable of working for the terrorists while also working for Americans. Nabil had requested the same ground rule with the State Department, but his request was ignored.
Nabil eventually became so consumed with fear of being killed by terrorists for talking to US authorities that he decided to flee Iraq. Before he left, he asked me if there was anything else I could do to help him find a way to safety in the US. I told him that as a last resort, I would contact one of my congressmen, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and ask for his help.
Since phone communication where I was working was terrible I sent Senator Reed an email detailing Nabil's plight and underscoring the importance of the information he held. I asked the senator to intervene on Nabil's behalf. A few days later I got an email response from his office; a standard form letter outlining his antiwar positions on Iraq, and nothing else.
I understand that our representatives get many emails every day and that it is unlikely that Senator Reed even saw my correspondence. Still, the form letter sent from his office in response to my plea was evidence of the disconnect that exists today between many US congressmen and their constituents. It was a reminder of how little some of the people who work for them really care about the men and women who risk their lives in this time of war.
When I told Nabil what had happened when I'd queried Senator Reed, he looked at me sadly and then thanked me for the help I'd given him. He said, "Now I must leave before I am killed."
Weeks later, he was gone.
It has been approximately four months since Nabil fled Iraq. We have stayed in touch with each other and in October I visited him in a country bordering Iraq where he was hiding out illegally. He is at the end of his rope and he is living in fear. The terrorist group he spoke to the FBI and State Department about has agents in every Middle Eastern country. Nabil knows this, and he is always looking behind his back -- he worries for himself, his wife and his new baby girl.
During a conversation we had a few weeks ago he asked me a question that hit me like a punch to the stomach: "I helped your country, I risked my life to help your country and my country, why won't your country help me?"
That is a good question, indeed. Why won't my country help Nabil? Why has my country, the United States, admitted few Iraqi immigrants since deposing Saddam Hussein? Why has it helped so few of the thousands of Iraqis who have risked their lives helping Americans? This question transcends ideology, it is not related to Conservatism, Liberalism or any other political doctrine. It is simply a question of what is right to do when an Iraqi risks his life in the service of his country and in the service of the United States of America.
Here are some raw facts on Iraqi refugees: As of January 1, 2007 Syria, a member of the Axis of Evil, has admitted 1,000,000 Iraqi refugees. Iran, another member of the Axis of Evil has admitted 57,000 Iraqi refugees. Jordan, a small country, has taxed itself to the limit by admitting 650,000 Iraqi refugees. The rest of the Gulf States have allowed 200,000 Iraqis to immigrate. Egypt has admitted up to 70,000 and Lebanon has admitted 20-40,000 Iraqi refugees. The Western European countries combined have admitted 145,960. In comparison the United States, the beacon of hope to the world's oppressed, the country that purports to take the moral high ground when it comes to protecting the weak and the persecuted, has admitted a paltry 19,800 Iraqi refugees since 1997. Last year it admitted only 1608. This is scandalous.
An inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Unless they are Iraqis who served America in the fight to free their country, I might add.
My friend Nabil is not poor, nor is he "wretched refuse," nor is he beaten down and tired. But he is effectively a man without a country and his life is in jeopardy. He helped America in a time of war and he pays a heavy price for that. He will never be at peace, he will never be safe as long as he remains in the Middle East.
Nabil has tried other routes to safety, including applying for refugee status to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Though he presented the UNHCR with extensive documentation of the events that led to his plight and presented compelling evidence why he should be granted asylum in the US, his application has gone nowhere. Nabil has heard first hand accounts of people who made up stories to the UNHCR of being in danger in Iraq when in fact they were not. He knows first hand of at least one person who got asylum in the United States via UNHCR by doing that.
Nabil and many other people in Iraq suspect that there is corruption in the UNHCR when it comes to the resettlement of Iraqis. Since UNHCR does have a history of corruption that dates back to its activities in Kenya, where UNHCR officials took bribes in exchange for the resettlement of Kenyan refugees, it is possible there suspicions are correct.
Given that past and the fact that most Iraqis despise the UN for both the Oil for Food scandal and because it went to diplomatic war against the US instead of pushing for the removal of Saddam Hussein, it is remarkable that the US government has largely abdicated its responsibility of resettling endangered Iraqis like Nabil to the UNHCR.
I know that there are many people in my government who could help Nabil get to safety in the US if they knew of his situation. I know that my Senator, Jack Reed, could help him. I know that Senator Edward Kennedy, an outspoken advocate for Iraqi refugees could help him, turning words into action. Therefore, I ask Senator Reed, Senator Kennedy and all other US congressmen and senators a few simple questions: Which of you will be the first to step up to the plate and give my dear brother Nabil and his young family the justice and the protection they deserve? It is within your powers to do that with essentially the stroke of a pen. Since word travels fast in Iraq you would win many hearts and minds there if you did this one small, decent act.
And how about you, President Bush? A few months ago you were willing to grant amnesty to millions of people who had entered America illegally. Would you be willing to help one Iraqi man, an educated decent, hard-working man who risked his life for your nation in a time of war, immigrate with his wife and baby girl to the US legally?
When it comes to the plights of men and women like Nabil it is time for the US government to put its money where its mouth is. Iraqis and other Middle Easterners are watching, and they look to see if America is a land of justice, a land where the oppressed and the persecuted are welcomed and protected, a land where the brave and the good and the hard working are rewarded, not abandoned to the wolves. Iraqis look toward our shores and wonder if the promise of the Statue of Liberty still holds. If they see that we are who we say we are, they will stand fast with us in the fight against terrorism and extremism. If they view us as ungrateful and disloyal, we can never trust their assistance and expect their loyalty in the fight against humanity's worst elements, in this current fight for freedom, peace and civilization in Iraq and beyond.
Winning hearts and minds means much more than giving lip service. It means doing what you say you will do. It means not making promises you cannot, or will not keep. It means doing right to those who have done right to you. It means helping heroes like my brother Nabil.
Rocco DiPippo is a free lance writer who spent eight months in Iraq as a construction manager on several Iraq reconstruction projects. He publishes The Autonomist blog. Email Rocco.