The Defense Department and Iraqi diplomats are trying to find a way to exempt Iraqi military pilots from President Trump's executive order on immigration and allow them to continue training in the United States with the Air Force.
A Pentagon official confirmed to Air Force Times Monday that the department was working on an exemption allowing Iraqis to continue traveling to the U.S. to learn to fly F-16s, and said officials hoped to have the details ironed out today. The Washington Examiner first reported that a possible exemption was in the works.
"We are working closely with our State Department and Homeland Security Department counterparts to determine the practical effect of the executive order," the official said. "The high importance we place on the Iraqi-U.S. relationship has not changed. Working by, with and through the government of Iraq to defeat ISIS in Iraq is still among our top priorities as a department and as a government."
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis also said the Iraqi pilots may come in on a different kind of visa that is unaffected by the travel ban, but that officials were trying to confirm that.
An Iraqi diplomat, who asked not to be named, said efforts are underway to make sure Iraqi pilots can continue traveling to the United States for training.
"We are working hard to secure exemptions for Iraqis from this list," the diplomat told Air Force Times. "As a country, Iraq is a significant U.S. ally in fighting ISIS, which is a common goal for [the] U.S. and Iraq."
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina blasted Trump's order, which was issued suddenly Friday night and sharply limits travel for 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries, saying it could become "a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism."
They cited the Iraqi pilots as an example of how the executive order undermines the fight against the Islamic State. The Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing in Tucson trains military pilots from nations around the world, including Iraq, on how to fly F-16s.
"Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred," McCain and Graham said. "This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country."
The Air Force told Air Force Times Monday it was still trying to get clarification on the executive order, what it means for its pilot training efforts, and how many Iraqi pilots might be affected by it.
Arizona National Guard spokeswoman Maj. Candace Park said there are currently about 30 Iraqi students in the F-16 training pipeline. That includes those studying at the Defense Language Institute, those going through initial pilot training and those going through F-16 training at the 162nd. Park said the number of Iraqi students there is usually in flux as students graduate and new students take their place.
The order has sparked international controversy and protests at airports nationwide. Iraqi lawmakers voted Monday to call on their government to enact a similar ban on Americans, although Newsweek reported that U.S. personnel assisting in the fight against ISIS would probably be exempted.
Pentagon Bureau Chief Andrew deGrandpre contributed to this report.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.