Salam Hamrani is safe -- for now.
My Iraqi fixer and friend endured two years in a Baghdad jail. His crime: helping American troops nab Shiite militants who were killing his Sunni neighbors. He was finally freed and escaped with his family to Greek Cyprus.
Our reunion in Larnaca was emotional and full of laughter. But Salam's story is a sad tale of U.S. failures and betrayals in Iraq.
A Shiite whose uncle was hanged by Saddam Hussein, Salam was thrilled when U.S. troops ousted the dictator. As Iraq collapsed into civil war, he was furious when the militant Shiite Mahdi army moved into his mixed neighborhood and started killing Sunnis.
So he started tipping U.S. officers at a forward operating base in his district about the worst of these killers.
When U.S. troops withdrew, family members of one of these thugs got friends in the Iraqi army to arrest him, along with his two sons. A Shiite army general who was chummy with the killer's mother and sister made sure Salam stayed in prison.
Although U.S. civilian and military officials made enquiries (at my urging) and these may have saved Salam's life, they were unable to expedite his freedom. Finally, after two years, an honest judge -- at great risk to his own life -- freed Salam (there was no evidence against him).
But his Mahdi army enemies, who had murdered his brother while he was in jail, made death threats against him. And -- under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- murderous Mahdi army militiamen who killed Iraqis and U.S. troops are being let out of prison.
So Salam sold his property and his wife's jewelry, packed up his family, including his 1-year-old granddaughter, and fled via Syria to Turkey. From Turkey, smugglers took the family in a small boat on a treacherous sea journey to Turkish Cyprus, then walked for hours in the dark in order to cross the Turkish-Greek Cypriot border. They requested asylum and are waiting to hear from the Greek Cypriot Interior Ministry whether they will get refugee status that will enable them to stay on the island.
I hope they succeed, because if Salam has to return home, he won't live long. The price that Iraqis pay for having helped Americans has become hideously high.
Salam's gutsy assistance to his threatened Sunni neighbors back home has not gone unrecognized. An Iraqi Sunni businessman whose son was kidnapped by Shiite militiamen -- and rescued by Salam -- contributed some money to the Hamrani family's escape.
Despite his work with American journalists, and the huge risks he took to help U.S. troops, Salam's chances of coming to America are slim.
Congress established a Special Immigrant Visa program in 2008 to help Iraqis who are endangered because they helped us. The program promised to grant 25,000 primary visas over five years (with more visas for family members); fewer than 3,500 have been issued so far. And just when those visas are most needed -- with all U.S. troops set to leave by the end of this year -- the program has been frozen by new security requirements.
Top U.S. officials tell me they are focused on the Iraqi visa issue, and yet, despite all their protestations, little is moving. They refuse to consider the one act that might save Iraqis under death threat -- an emergency airlift.
This failure to act is a blot on America's honor, a betrayal of Iraqis who risked their lives to help us.