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Save Whomever We Can

A few days ago, the brother of my friend Osman was one of seven Sunni workers in a shop in a mixed neighborhood of western Baghdad who were rounded up at gunpoint by Mahdi Army militiamen and taken to the local Shia mosque. There, they were taunted about Saddam Hussein's death sentence and then, one by one, shot in the head. Osman's brother was only grazed and survived. But, when the bodies were loaded into a pickup truck and brought to a nearby Iraqi Army checkpoint, a soldier in uniform noticed that he was still alive. "Let's see you stay alive now," the soldier said and shot him again, through the eye. Somehow Osman's brother survived the second bullet, too, though he lost his eye and his brain began to swell up. He was taken to a Baghdad hospital in critical condition. The ministry of health is dominated by Moqtada Al Sadr's movement, and, when I called Osman while he was visiting his brother one night, he had to leave the room before talking with me: It was too dangerous to be overheard speaking English on his cell phone. After a couple of days, Osman, who is a doctor, decided the hospital was too dangerous and unsanitary. He smuggled his brother back into their house, but word of his survival has spread. And, if his brother's name was on a death list, Osman's name will quite likely be on one now, too. 

Osman (not his real name, which he asked me not to use) has spent the last two years working with Western journalists in Iraq. He never told anyone in his family, concocting elaborate lies when, for example, he recently traveled to London to collect a prize. He has a scholarship to study journalism in the United States starting in the fall of 2007. I would like him to leave Iraq sooner. But it isn't easy for an Iraqi to get out. 

Recently, I asked my friend what he would do if U.S. forces began to withdraw from Baghdad. Osman, an utterly secular Sunni who despises the religious extremists of both sects, replied, "I would have to be protected by Al Qaeda." Between the Sunni jihadists who would immediately take over his area and the Shia death squads hunting down people with his quintessentially Sunni name, Osman would be forced to choose the former. He has begun to establish connections with the extremists in his neighborhood to win their trust. "I would have to obey their rules," he said. (Their rules against blue jeans, shorts, Western-style haircuts, and women driving cars carry the death penalty.) "We'll be happy to do it because they will give us their protection--at first." Over the long run, the jihadists would establish a reign of terror, as they have done in the towns of Anbar province that have come under their control. 

When the war in Iraq was an insurgency, there was a chance of ending it with a better counterinsurgency and, ultimately, politics. Once it took the form of a civil war, America's role became increasingly marginal and precarious. I saw this vividly during my last trip to Iraq, at the beginning of the year, and it accelerated shortly after my return, when Al Qaeda bombed the Shia shrine in Samarra. When we tried to withdraw from Baghdad in the summer, the violence spiked. When we poured more troops into Baghdad in the fall, the violence spiked. The status quo is untenable. More troops would have made a difference in the first or second year of the war, but no longer. So U.S. policy has to change. 

The shape of that change has already been much discussed by experts, and it will be further discussed in the new Congress, in the Baker-Hamilton Commission, in other places. The best outcome of these discussions would be a general recognition, among Democrats and rational Republicans, that the war the administration has fought is lost. But how we leave will be as consequential as how we arrived. A precipitous U.S. withdrawal could bring as many disasters to Iraq, the Middle East, and the United States as the precipitous invasion brought. We should let the Iraqi government know that our continued support--the numbers of troops, their rate of departure, the training and advising of Iraqi forces, the money spent on reconstruction--depends on its progress toward a political settlement between the warring factions, if possible with the involvement of Iraq's neighbors. There are many reasons to think that this, too, will fail. If it does, the United States will have to face the hard fact that it can no longer play any constructive role in Iraq, other than simply to slow down the rate of disintegration. 

But this is the language of policymakers, and I don't want to devote my contribution to proposals that they are professionally better equipped to make. I want to talk about something else. Withdrawal means that the United States will have to watch Iraqis die in ever greater numbers without doing much of anything to prevent it, because the welfare of Iraqis will no longer be among our central concerns. Those Iraqis who have had anything to do with the occupation and its promises of democracy will be among the first to be killed: the translators, the government officials, the embassy employees, the journalists, the organizers of women's and human rights groups. As it is, they are being killed one by one. (I personally know at least half a dozen of them who have been murdered.) Without the protection of the Green Zone, U.S. bases, or the inhibiting effect on the Sunni and Shia militias of 150,000 U.S. troops, they will be killed in much greater numbers. To me, the relevant historical analogy is not the helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, leaving thousands of Vietnamese to the reeducation camps. It is the systematic slaughter by the Khmer Rouge of every Cambodian who appeared to have had anything to do with the West. 

If the United States leaves Iraq, our last shred of honor and decency will require us to save as many of these Iraqis as possible. In June, a U.S. Embassy cable about the lives of the Iraqi staff was leaked to The Washington Post. Among many disturbing examples of intimidation and fear was this sentence: "In March, a few staff approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate." The cable gave no answer. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not issue visas. Iraqis who want to come to the United States must make their way across dangerous territory to a neighboring country that has a U.S. Embassy with a consular section. Iran and Syria do not; Jordan has recently begun to bar entry to Iraqi men under the age of 35. For a military translator to have a chance at coming to the United States, he must be able to prove that he worked for at least a year with U.S. forces and have the recommendation of a general officer--nearly impossible in most cases. Our current approach essentially traps Iraqis inside their country, where they will have to choose, like Osman, between jihadists and death squads. 

We should start issuing visas in Baghdad, as well as in the regional embassies in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hilla, and Basra. We should issue them liberally, which means that we should vastly increase our quota for Iraqi refugees. (Last year, it was fewer than 200.) We should prepare contingency plans for massive airlifts and ground escorts. We should be ready for desperate and angry crowds at the gates of the Green Zone and U.S. bases. We should not allow wishful thinking to put off these decisions until it's too late. We should not compound our betrayals of Iraqis who put their hopes in our hands. 

Since hearing the story of Osman's brother, I've been unable to get out of my head the British poet James Fenton's "Cambodia," written after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge: 

One man shall smile one day and say goodbye.
Two shall be left, two shall be left to die.
One man shall give his best advice.
Three men shall pay the price.

One man shall live, live to regret.
Four men shall meet the debt.
One man shall wake from terror to his bed.
Five men shall be dead.

One man to five. A million men to one.
And still they die. And still the war goes on. 

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.