Allies Left Behind? Iraqis Who Helped U.S. Feel 'Betrayed,' Marked for Death

Kirk Johnson is the keeper of what he calls the saddest list in the world -- a list of Iraqis who worked for the United States but are now marked for death and on the run.

Johnson says that the U.S. effort in Iraq "would not have functioned without these people. And they risk their lives every single day to come through checkpoints that are routinely mortared and shelled and hit by suicide bombers and snipers just to come and help us -- because they believe in America enough to help us rebuild their country."

Many of these Iraqis fled their country after they got letters that describe them as "enemies of God," as well as blunt threats: "We will cut off your heads."

Watch Dan Harris' report on Iraq's pro-U.S. refugees. Check your local listings for air time.

All are now desperate to come to the United States, and Kirk Johnson is the man they are turning to.

"This is urgent," he says. "This isn't, 'Let's have a meeting once a month to figure out how we are going to address the issue.' This is, 'Let's get them on a plane to save them because they need our help now.'"

Johnson spent a year in Iraq for the U.S. government. He worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, including a long stint in the dangerous Fallujah area, trying to aid Iraqis in rebuilding their war-torn country.

When Johnson got home, he was contacted by some former Iraqi colleagues looking for help -- including "Ibrahim" who had fled to Egypt after getting a death threat. Ibrahim also has a brain tumor and is desperate for better medical care than he can get in Egypt as a refugee.

"Of course, I miss my family," he says. "My whole life turned down upon. I am sick. I am alone. Every day, I wake up I ask my God why am I still alive."

Johnson went to his congressman in an effort to help people like "Ibrahim," then to the State Department. But he got nowhere.

In frustration, Johnson wrote opinion pieces in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. After that, he was contacted by scores of other Iraqis who had worked for the United States and were desperate for help. Many had been tortured or raped, or had family members killed or kidnapped.

His list now has more than 500 names. And Johnson is hearing from more desperate Iraqis almost every day. (For more on Johnson's list go to http://www.thelistproject.org/)

Johnson talks to people on the list every day, about things like legal help in applying for political asylum, putting them in touch with refugee officials, and moral support.

He says he gets new e-mails almost every day, adding new names to his list. He says he feels the burden, and that sometimes he can't sleep at night wondering how he is going to help.

The list has gotten attention from the media, from congressmen and senators, but not a single person from his list -- not "Ibrahim," not anyone else -- has been let into this country.

Johnson says the problem is politics.

"If this president were to help these Iraqis," Johnson says, "it would look as though he is making some admission of failure on the part of the war -- that if the only place left for these Iraqis is the United States, then things aren't going so well."

But one top U.S. official strongly disagrees.

"I really reject that," says Ellen Sauerbrey, the top State Department official on refugees, including those from Iraq. "There has been no constraint placed on us by the administration. The administration has been fully supportive."

Nevertheless, only a handful of Iraqis have been admitted to the U.S. this year. By contrast, after the Vietnam war the U.S. resettled 140,000 refugees in four months.

Sauerbrey says things have changed.

"People like to compare this period to the fall of Vietnam," she says. "At that time, we did not have the security process that has been put in place after 9/11. It's a different world that we live in today. We are doing everything that we can."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has a blunt response to Sauerbrey.

"That's a bureaucratic answer," Kennedy says. "These people have been screened. How are they going to be translators for American military units that are in battles with the insurgents and they haven't been screened?"

In fact, many have been screened, but still few have made it to the United States so far. While Congress has approved 1,000 special visas for interpreters and translators to be re-settled in the United States over the next two years, so far only 36 visas have been issued for citizens of both Iraq and Afghanistan. A handful of others have made their way to America and applied for political asylum.

While the State Department says it is doing everything it can, and expects to bring many more of these kinds of refugees to the United States, when ABC's Dan Harris asked Sauerbrey if she had seen Johnson's list, she said, "If Kirk Johnson has a list, I wish he'd give it to us."

Johnson claims he has, but Sauerbrey told Harris, "If we have a list, if we have any such list, I've not seen it."

Harris asked, "You're saying that Kirk's list that's gotten all this publicity, that you don't have it?"

"I don't have Kirk's list," she said.

Later, Sauerbrey's office called to say it does have the list, but that she had not been properly briefed.

Johnson says he brought the list to the State Department himself.

"It either means that she does not care about this issue," he says, "or she's just completely not at the helm of her own bureau."

Kirk Johnson says the real national security issue is what message this crisis will send to anyone in the Middle East who is thinking about helping the United States ever again.

His colleague, "Ibrahim" knows what message it has sent for him.

"The coming American generation, they will have to deal with this story," he says, "the story of those who were betrayed, those who believed in the American dream, in the American government, in the American president that promised them. And now they discovered that everything was a lie."

For Johnson, it's a question of morality.

"The region is going to watch how we handle those people that help us," he says. "And this, I think, just gets back to something that is very basic and to our core values about America -- that we don't abandon those who help us."

This is the first in a series on Iraqi refugees and the dilemma that Americans face in how to deal with it.