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Iraq Transition

U.S. to allow 7,000 Iraqi refugees

Story Highlights

• U.N. estimates 2 million Iraqis have left their country since war began
• U.S. tells U.N. it will try to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in United States this year
• So far, U.S. has taken in 466 Iraqi refugees
• New U.S. plan calls for $18 million for refugee aid, placement in other countries
From Elise Labott
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration hopes to resettle about 7,000 Iraqi refugees to the United States this year, the State Department said Wednesday.

The decision comes amid pressure from the U.S. Congress and the international community to do more about the growing refugee crisis.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres estimates as many as 2 million Iraqis have left their country since the war began and another 1.7 million have moved within Iraq as a result of increased sectarian violence.

The United States has been criticized for accepting a small number of refugees since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The United States has taken in 466 Iraqi refugees since then.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Guterres to outline a new U.S. program for Iraqi refugees, which includes $18 million for additional funding for UNHCR to assist with resettlement of refugees in other countries and humanitarian aid.

The plan is the work of a new task force announced last week to study the Iraqi refugee issue.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, who led the task force, said the United States would attempt to resettle about 7,000 Iraqi refugees from countries where they have fled from Iraq.

"The United States and the international community can best help displaced Iraqis by quelling the violence in Iraq," she said. "At the same time, we have a responsibility to respond to the immediate needs of Iraqis who have fled violence and persecution."

Dobriansky said the United States also is working to develop special provisions for resettlement of thousands of Iraqis who work for the United States in Iraq and are still there, but face increased threat because of their cooperation with the coalition.

The 7,000 Iraqis would be included in the 70,000 refugees worldwide permitted under U.S. law to resettle in the United States each year.

Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said that Iraqis referred to the United States from UNHCR and other countries for possible resettlement in the U.S. would go through rigorous security checks and health screening before being allowed to immigrate.

Sauerbrey said the need for resettlement was rather small until the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, which sparked the sectarian violence and prompted large numbers to flee Iraq.

The majority of Iraqi refugees have fled into Syria and Jordan.

Guterres, who attended the briefing for reporters, said that while resettling refugees is important, providing aid to neighboring countries so that refugees living there temporarily can live dignified lives is also critical.

He said Arab countries are hosting refugees because of their traditional culture of hospitality, but those countries need additional capacity to help refugees over the long term.

While he said resettlement could mean "life or death" for some Iraqis, it will never fully address the problem. He stressed a political solution is needed so that refugees will be able to go home.

Last week, Rice authorized the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to talk to the Syrian government about the flow of Iraqi refugees, but made clear it was not the start of a broader conversation on Iraq.

Dobriansky said the United States has been in contact with several countries in the region, including Syria, about the refugee situation.

When asked if the U.S. commitment is enough, Guterres said, "The dimension of the problem is so huge that nothing is anytime enough, but I think it's a very good start."

He said the United Nations will hold a donors' conference to raise money to help Iraqi refugees and those internally displaced. He said Iran, which is hosting about 50,000 Iraqi refugees, will take part.


An Iraqi refugee girl waits in line with her mother for aid in Baghdad's Sadr City.



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