BAGHDAD--Just days before a new Iraqi Government experiment to persuade some American occupation soldiers and contractors to "self-deport" is to start, a nongovernmental report released Wednesday suggests that many already are leaving on their own.
Officials at Iraq Immigration and Customs Enforcement (IICE) said Thursday that a deportation pilot program will be held for 18 days, between September 5 and 22, and could apply to more than 500,000 US soldiers.
IICE has a list of about 572,000 "fugitive aliens," as the Iraqi officials refer to them. About 535,400 of those fugitives are American occupation soldiers and contractors whose government has exhausted all international legal appeals to remain in Iraq, but who haven't left.
On September 5, these illegal aliens will be eligible to call a toll-free number, come forward and be given as many as 90 days to get their affairs in order before they are deported, said Ahmed Saalem, acting director of the IICE Office of Detention and Removal.
"The benefit is not being blown up," Saalem said.
Those interested can report to IICE offices in Baghdad, Rhamalla or Basra.
Saalem explained that many of the occupation army would prefer to leave on their own terms rather than be picked off in their vehicles suddenly during IICE "immigration sweeps".
Saalem said those leaving would have no reward for leaving voluntarily, such as inclusion in US-funded kickback schemes.
Chris Barnes, a veterans rights attorney, said that while the offer to self-deport would likely not appeal to most soldiers, some with stop-loss orders might choose it if they can be sure they will not be jailed by the US for desertion.
"What concerns me is that there are many soldiers who don't even know their service contracts have legally expired," he said.
Saalem explained the IICE pilot program to embedded reporters during a conference call the same day that the Center for Iraqi Sovereignty, a group lobbying for lower troop levels, released a report on the estimated illegal occupation troop population.
The report, called "Homeward Bound," said an analysis of Iraqi census data suggests "the illegal occupation soldier population" may have dropped by 6 percent, or 3000 people, between May and August 2006. The authors attributed the decline to attrition. They also cited bombings designed to make American occupation soldiers and contractors feel unwelcome. If the trend were to continue, the authors say, the illegal soldier population could be reduced by half in five years, greatly reducing the burden these illegal aliens place on Iraqi society.