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Leaving Iraq: What about the refugees?

When President Barack Obama and senior administration officials proudly announced that all U.S. troops in Iraq would leave by the end of the year, there was no mention of the millions of Iraqis who were forced to flee their homes by the U.S. invasion or the thousands who risked their lives by working directly for ...

When President Barack Obama and senior administration officials proudly announced that all U.S. troops in Iraq would leave by the end of the year, there was no mention of the millions of Iraqis who were forced to flee their homes by the U.S. invasion or the thousands who risked their lives by working directly for the U.S. military.

"It is wonderful that American troops will finally be able to come home, but we must remember that for the nearly three million Iraqis displaced by the war, returning home is still not an option," said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center.

The U.S. neglect of Iraqi refugees — especially those who can no longer live in safety in Iraq due to their work with the U.S. military — is not a new phenomenon.  Your humble Cable guy has met dozens of Iraqi refugees over the years, mostly women, who had somehow managed to secure a rare special visa to enter the United States, but this status has been offered to only a fraction of those who helped the U.S. military by working as guides or translators.

Most of those refugees were living in the United States without jobs, permanent residences, or any financial support from the U.S. government. Many were wholly dependent on the kindness of the soldiers they had worked with in Iraq, who felt an obligation to aid them. Some even married those soldiers.

As early as 2007, The New Yorker and other outlets were reporting about the herculean efforts U.S. soldiers had gone to in order to help their Iraqi staffers flee to safety, even creating an "underground railroad" to bring Iraqis to the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan, because the Baghdad embassy would not process their visa requests.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took up the issue of Iraqi refugees, introducing a resolution to expand the available number of visas and pressing the State Department to streamline the process for those who sacrificed on behalf of the U.S. effort. He had some success, but died before finishing the work.

Four years later, advocates are still pressing the administration to issue all the visas it can to help Iraqis resettle in the United States and then help them get on with their new lives.

"The United States failed to honor its commitment to Iraqi refugees this year, admitting less than half of the 17,000 refugees we had promised to help. This includes thousands of Iraqis whose lives are at risk, or family members have been killed, as a direct result of their work as interpreters and drivers with U.S. forces in Iraq," Heller said. "The U.S. must continue to honor its obligations to the Iraqis for whom withdrawal is not an option."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin