To the Americans who came in contact with Firas al-Qaisi, he was one of those rare, unambiguously good guys in Iraq. As one of the country's elite independent judicial prosecutors, al-Qaisi investigated serious crimes, particularly murders, in some of Baghdad's toughest mixed neighborhoods. But nothing prepared him for the day he found himself caught up in a Kafka-esque nightmare from which he was rescued only through the intervention of his new American friends.
The judicial work put al-Qaisi, a Sunni, in conflict with Shiite militias—inside and outside the police force—as well as Sunni insurgents. Still, he refused to carry a gun or even have a bodyguard. Over time, he became a trusted adviser to Americans trying to sort through Iraq's complicated ethnic, sectarian, and tribal mosaic. "He was the only guy who came in regularly as our common-sense check," says John Stinson, who served as a civilian adviser to Iraq's Interior and Justice ministries.
Al-Qaisi, 36, also helped the Americans in other ways. He became a reliable go-between for Iraqis trying to locate relatives in U.S. or Iraqi government custody. Although he was never a paid U.S. informant, al-Qaisi also provided U.S. forces with counterterrorism information, the details of which are too sensitive to reveal because they might endanger his extended family in Iraq. "He has provided information of a very important nature without ever taking anything in return," says one U.S. official in Baghdad. "He went out of his way to find ways to save lives here and keep terrorism at bay in his neighborhood."
But al-Qaisi's world came crashing down one day in May when the militia-ridden Iraqi national police raided his home during a neighborhood sweep, seizing him and his 20-year-old brother, Hussein. Shuttled between secret Interior Ministry prisons, al-Qaisi says he was beaten repeatedly, sometimes until he passed out. At one point, he and his brother were left tied up and blindfolded in the back of a van for two hours in the sweltering Baghdad heat. "We were about to suffocate," he recalls.
His Shiite police interrogators, who al-Qaisi believes had ties to militia groups, spent most of their time grilling him on one topic, and it had nothing to do with the violence in his neighborhood. "I was asked repeatedly about the nature of my work with the Americans," says al-Qaisi, who suffered a broken nose, a bruised shoulder, and other injuries. His left eye was swollen shut and the other was half closed. At one point, al-Qaisi says he overheard a fellow prisoner being beaten until he was dead. "They put his body in a wheelbarrow and wheeled him out," he says. Another night, al-Qaisi says a group of Iranians showed up at the prison to watch the interrogations. "Some of them," he says, "did not even speak Arabic well."
After 13 days, U.S. officials finally located al-Qaisi and were able to free him. Whisked to a safe house in Baghdad's Green Zone, al-Qaisi had to confront an uncomfortable fact: He couldn't safely return home—or even remain in Iraq. "If we didn't get him out, he was going to die," says Stinson.
Admission granted. But getting him out was not easy. In the past 12 months, the U.S. government refugee program has admitted only 884 from among the estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees. (The Bush administration said Friday that it will try to expedite the review of thousands more applications.) And the required multimonth waiting period in a third country like Jordan or Syria would have been too dangerous. After more than two months hidden in the Green Zone, al-Qaisi finally won temporary admission to the United States under the Significant Public Benefit Parole program, which bypasses regular immigration rules to admit valued foreigners. (More than 200 Iraqis have been admitted under this program since 2004.) There was one more hitch: Since his wife was eight months pregnant, they needed the signature of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to travel aboard a U.S. military medical evacuation flight.
Al-Qaisi landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on August 24. Now, he looks back at Iraq's crumbling judicial system with sadness. The U.S. invasion, at least for a while, had represented the possibility of change. "I liked their system," he says. "When you go to the chow line, you see high-ranking generals behind simple privates...and there is respect between them." But he soon was struggling to cope with a spiking murder rate, police who would frequently ignore judicial commands to investigate, crime scenes that would be tampered with, and corrupt judges who would allow guilty men to go free. He also watched as other prominent officials in his office were murdered, including another prosecutor with the same name as his. Then in 2005 he was forced out of his prestigious job when all of the Sunni prosecutors and judges were suddenly transferred to the southern Shiite-dominated city of Basra—an almost certain death sentence for them.