WASHINGTON – Hussein Ibrahim al-Tikriti has a name and a resume that can create a lot of enemies in Iraq.
A native of Saddam Hussein's hometown and a translator for American and British security companies, the 31-year-old hoped to find safety by moving to the United States under a program designed to help Iraqis who've risked their lives for the U.S. government.
But like many other would-be refugees, al-Tikriti has been stuck in limbo amid a sharp tightening in security checks for entry to the United States. Obama administration officials say stricter controls were necessary after investigators discovered that a former insurgent and another Iraqi illegally entered the U.S. as refugees and then attempted to send weapons and money to al-Qaida.
The result has been a dramatic decline in the number of Iraqis allowed to move to the U.S. this year.
"Those two persons have harmed Iraqis more than the Americans," al-Tikriti told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. The U.S. should recognize that his case is separate and that "most Iraqi refugees want to live in peace," he pleaded.
The enhanced security clearance process has delayed hundreds and perhaps thousands of Iraqi visa applications. One U.S. official stressed that resettlement "isn't completely frozen" and that accepted applications have started to perk up after plummeting in the first half of 2011. Another official acknowledged that "numbers are down by a significant factor," though the process is getting faster.
The delays have affected all types of Iraqi visa applications, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential security changes.
The vast majority of Iraqis apply for resettlement on grounds of religious persecution or to be reunited with family members. Yet some, like al-Tikriti, seek entry through the "special immigrant visa" created by Congress in 2006 and expanded two years later as a reward for translators and others who've worked with the U.S. government or contractors. Only 156 Iraqis and 209 of their family members have been granted these visas since October. More than 2,000 Iraqis made it through during fiscal year 2010.
Altogether, more than 54,000 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. over the last five years. There have been few problems, but officials say flaws in the process were exposed last year while undercover federal investigators zeroed in on two men who were mistakenly admitted as refugees from Iraq in 2009.
Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, were arrested in May and charged with conspiring to send weapons and money to al-Qaida in Iraq. The FBI said that Alwan also spoke of setting roadside explosives in Iraq from 2003 through 2006 and that investigators found his fingerprints on an unexploded bomb.
The men remain jailed awaiting trial in Kentucky, while the case has become a sensitive political issue. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has pressed the Obama administration to send the men to the Navy-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a military trial, but Attorney General Eric Holder has defended the plan to try them in civilian courts.
The failure that allowed Alwan and Hammadi to enter the U.S. wasn't the result of incompetence, the officials stressed. They said that applicants weren't being vetted against all information sources and that the process needed to be updated to take into account evolving threats. As a result, Iraqis now face lengthier waits.
The system was fixed in December 2010, according to officials, and that's when al-Tikriti filed his application.
Al-Tikriti said he thought he'd be able to leave Iraq by May. But almost eight months since his filing he is still waiting for a first security interview. He now might be held back until 2012, though he says he remains in danger after several years of employment with the British-based companies Hart Group and Aegis, and then U.S. security firm TigerSwan.
"When the people hear that I am from Tikrit, they link me immediately to Saddam and his family," al-Tikriti told the AP. "And if they hear that I have been working for security companies, they will immediately link us to the Americans."
Yacoub reported from Baghdad.