In Iraq, the Price of a Name Is Death

To be called Abu Omar in today's Iraq is to be on death row. "Abu Omar" means "father of Omar." And this means that you probably are a Sunni and your son is a Sunni, too. And, as a Sunni friend explained to me last month—with her Shia husband sitting next to her—"all Omars in Iraq are either killed or change their names. For any Omar, the safest bet is to flee."

This is what the Abu Omar from Baghdad whom I met in Amman had done. He fled to Jordan after his relative named Omar was murdered, and after his son (the little Omar, 9) was first beaten and then, in a separate incident, kidnapped along with his sister Nabaa, 11. The ransom demanded was $10,000. Abu Omar did not ask the name of the group that wanted the money; he sold his shop and house and paid. Thirteen days later, his two children were back with him. Without waiting for anything worse to happen, Abu Omar left Baghdad. He now "lives" with his wife and three children in one room whose broken windows are stuffed with plastic shopping bags: no heat, no furniture, no cooking utensils, no mattresses. They sleep on a green plastic mat. It does not get more squalid than that.

Abroad, the most common sign of the mayhem in Iraq we hear about is the daily bombings. Yet in my notes of conversations with recent Iraqi refugees, taken over two weeks in Amman and Damascus, the words "kidnapping" and "ransom" pop up as the most frequent explanations for why they fled. There are nearly 4 million of them—roughly half internally displaced within Iraq, and 1.8 million more who left, mostly for Jordan and Syria—ignored by the outside world. This mass exodus did not happen as expected, in 2003, when the tents were ready, but rather later, after the February 2006 bombing of the grand mosque in Samarra. The fact that the refugees are all "urban"—i.e., not in camps—makes them less visible, less telegenic.

In the United States, the issue of the Iraqi refugees was for the longest time all but invisible, partly because of the pretense that "democracy is spreading across the Middle East." When control of Congress changed hands after last November's elections, some of us thought America might wake up to the humanitarian crisis created by the invasion. A few even believed that it would offer Iraqis all the resettlement places at its discretion for the year—some 20,000 slots. It was therefore a major anticlimax when finally, in mid-February, the State Department announced with much publicity that no more than 7,000 Iraqis would be offered a chance to resettle in the United States in 2007.

Since then, crowds of Iraqis have gathered daily outside the offices of the U.N. refugee agency in Damascus and Amman. This is not because the U.S. offer is so generous (it can be seen as large only in comparison with the pitifully low number of 202 Iraqis resettled in 2006) but because the situation is so desperate. When you live as an illegal immigrant in one unheated room with three children, even a 0.5 percent chance of starting a new life in America is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Which brings us back to Abu Omar. Surely the most vulnerable refugees, the most compelling cases, will be attended to first under any resettlement program. And undoubtedly, Abu Omar should presumably be on the fast track to the shores of America. But no, not at all! As it turns out, he had given money to terrorists—in the form of that ransom. No matter that he did so to save his children's lives. According to U.S. antiterrorism legislation, he is guilty of "materially supporting" the enemy. So are countless other Iraqi refugees who paid exorbitant bribes or "escort" fees to get through the western province of Anbar on their way to Jordan or Syria, or those whose house, car, food or water was stolen from them en route by one group of "terrorists" or another.

Needless to say, this definition of who is a terrorist, and what constitutes "material support" to terrorism, is unreasonably broad. It is so self-defeating that the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a waiver for certain cases of duress—but only as long as the group involved is not among the 100 or more on the State Department's list of "foreign terrorist organizations."

Alas, Abu Omar will probably not benefit, because the burden of proof is on him. If DHS interviewers believe that he paid the ransom to a designated terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda or Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, they will deny him resettlement. To qualify, he would have to show that he gave his money to a group not on the State Department's list. He cannot do that, since he didn't ask who they were, nor would they, probably, have told him. So, no America for Abu Omar.

At bottom, this is another example of a law enacted to combat terrorism that ends up hurting the victims. Waivers won't fix the problem. The law needs to be changed.