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Americans like to think of themselves as a moral people.

So is it really possible that we will abandon thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives to help American troops and civilians but now face a grave threat of being killed as "collaborators"?

The short answer is yes.

It looks as if we will reward these Iraqis' loyalty with betrayal, including many who worked as interpreters for our troops. As we head toward a final U.S. military exit by the end of 2011, there is no plan to evacuate them.

And here's something equally shameful: Despite a 2008 act of Congress that called for 25,000 special immigrant visas over five years for Iraqis endangered because they helped Americans, fewer than 7,000 of those visas have been issued. The flow of special visas has shrunk to just nine in April, and zero in June due to new security requirements.

There's no doubt about what will happen to many of these Iraqis if we don't help them. "They will be hunted down and killed," said Kirk Johnson, who worked as an aid official in Iraq during the Bush administration. He then founded the List Project to help Iraqis who worked for American organizations.

Both Sunni and Shiite militia groups have announced that they will target "collaborators," who will get little protection from Iraqi security forces.

After American troops left Baghdad, my Iraqi driver was tortured and jailed for having tipped officers at a U.S. base in his neighborhood. The relatives of murderous Shiite militiamen whom he had fingered had friends in the Iraqi security services, and they got him arrested. Unlike many, he managed to get free and escape to Europe.

Johnson believes "at least 1,000 Iraqis who worked for us have already been killed, perhaps many times that." So why are we dawdling on this issue?

Part of the answer is bureaucratic. "No one in the administration has made this a top priority," said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York City. And partly the reason is security concerns. A recent Kentucky case involving two Iraqi immigrants suspected of insurgent ties has led to new security checks that have virtually frozen the program. This case sent Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, off on an anti-Iraqi immigrant rant that could be catching.

Yet here's the rub. The Kentucky case involves Iraqis who came in under a normal asylum quota, not the special program for Iraqis who worked for Americans. The latter group has already undergone extensive security checks. Yet the number of visas granted them is a small fraction of the visas granted to other Iraqi refugees.

There are plenty of precedents for what the United States should and shouldn't do to help these Iraqis. Needless to say, the Vietnam example, where we made no advance preparations to evacuate about 170,000 South Vietnamese allies, isn't one to emulate.

When the British left Basra in southern Iraq, 17 of their interpreters were immediately killed. After that the Brits organized an airlift of their former Iraqi staff. The Danes (justly famous for helping Danish Jews escape the Holocaust) also airlifted their Iraqi staff out when they left. When Polish troops went home, their Iraqi interpreters were offered asylum.

Are we less loyal to those who help us than the Danes and the Poles?

If we aren't prepared, our closest Iraqi friends may be clinging to our helicopters as we leave, or killed shortly afterward. Saving them will take a clear presidential directive, backed by legislators from both parties.

"Are we still capable of honoring a moral obligation to Iraqis who helped us, or has our moral compass been shattered" by post- 9/1 1 paranoia? Kirk Johnson asked me. The answer will be self-evident if we leave our loyal Iraqi friends to be killed.