WASHINGTON — More Iraqis who fear for their lives because they've worked for Americans in Iraq could apply for refugee status under a bill introduced this week in the Senate.
The bill is intended to speed and expand the process of resettling Iraqis who've helped the United States during the war and have been condemned as traitors by their neighbors. Only 63 Iraqi refugees have been admitted so far this year.
Many have been denied visas despite death threats and have fled their country, including Mohamed Abdul Kareem, who served with American soldiers for three years as a military interpreter and cultural adviser and whose story McClatchy recently reported.
The bill would create a special category of Iraqi applicants for refugee status. The number wouldn't be fixed, but would come from a worldwide quota of 70,000 refugees this year.
In addition, the bill would create an immigrant visa program for Iraqis who worked for the United States for at least a year. The program would complement an existing program for Iraqi interpreters and would cover people who worked in other professions. The bill calls for 5,000 visas yearly for five years.
On Friday Bush signed into law a separate bill expanding the number of Afghan and Iraqi translators allowed into the United States from 50 to 500 annually this year and next year.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of a Judiciary Committee panel on refugees and immigration, introduced the new bill late Tuesday along with three other senior Democrats who chair Senate committees: Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Armed Services; Joseph Biden of Delaware, Foreign Relations; and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Judiciary.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the chairman of Homeland Security and an independent Democrat from Connecticut who backs the Bush administration on war votes, also is a co-sponsor, as are two Republicans who've voted against the administration on the war, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon.
Spokesmen for the senators and other Senate aides said it was too soon to gauge how much backing the bill would receive. Because of the Senate's narrow political split and a rule that often requires a 60-vote majority, support from more Republican senators probably would be needed for the measure to pass.
A separate Iraqi refugee bill was introduced in the House of Representatives last month. The House and Senate would have to work out differences before a finished bill could go to President Bush for his approval or veto.
"The administration has ignored this far too long," said Laura Capps, a spokeswoman for Kennedy.
Hagel said in a statement that it would "help the administration resettle thousands of Iraqis who are the most in need, and have risked their lives to help the United States."
A State Department spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, said the department was reviewing the legislation.
Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, established a task force in February to help displaced Iraqis and said the State Department soon would review the applications of 7,000 Iraqi refugees.
New screening procedures went into place last month. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said the State Department estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqis would arrive in the United States by Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year.
The Senate bill also would:
Refugees International and other advocacy and aid groups support the Senate bill.
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)