WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The State Department hopes to meet its goal of resettling 12,000 Iraqi refugees by September, despite admitting only 375 so far this year, the department's refugee coordinator said Monday.
An Iraqi Sunni refugee sits in front a destroyed house outside Fallujah in January.
"This is a tall order but it remains attainable," said the State Department's senior coordinator on Iraqi refugee issues, Ambassador James Foley, in an off-camera briefing with reporters.
Foley was brought in last year to cut through bureaucratic red tape between the departments of State and Homeland Security, after Congress harshly criticized the slow pace of resettling Iraqi refugees. He praised what he called "essential and excellent cooperation" now in place between the two departments.
Despite comments by U.S. officials to the contrary, Foley challenged reports from last year that the United States had planned to admit 7,000 Iraqis for the financial year ending last fall, saying an official misspoke.
Although the State Department said it has received 17,000 referrals of Iraqi refugee cases, only 1,608 made it to the United States last year.
He called the slow process "a capacity problem," both within the agencies that refer the cases, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and within the United States itself.
"Building up this capacity is not an overnight process," he said. "We are building a capacity which will result in much stronger numbers later in the year.
Foley pointed to stronger cooperation with UNHCR and expanded U.S. processing facilities in Jordan and other countries that will speed up the process.
Additionally, beginning later this month the United States for the first time will be interviewing refugee applicants inside Iraq. Until now they had to be processed in other countries, especially next-door Jordan and Syria, which have had to cope with the largest flood of people fleeing Iraq.
He also attributed the backlog of refugee cases being resolved on Syria, which banned processing of refugees for several months in 2007.
Foley said it is impossible to predict what new problems might occur down the road.
The United States is expecting to take in 70,000 refugees this year from around the world, including Iraq. In addition to refugees, there are programs in place to issue special visas to Iraqis who assisted the United States in Iraq, for instance, as translators and interpreters.
Recent legislation opens the door even wider for special visa applicants, expanding the definition to people who have worked on behalf of the United States in Iraq and who are experiencing a threat to their safety as a result.
For this current year, winding up the end of September 2008, Foley said, "12,000 people is our goal."
Last month only 375 Iraqi refugees entered the United States, but Foley said the process will speed up in coming months. From the start of the fiscal year in October to the end of January the total of Iraqi refugees coming into the United States was 1,432.
"We are certainly not guaranteeing we are going to reach the 12,000 number," he said. "There are factors and variables that may make that difficult. We are not limited by 12,000, either. If we can exceed that, then we will be pleased to exceed that. We have an obligation to meet the humanitarian needs of this population."
Refugees International criticized the U.S. government Monday for what it called "the U.S. administration's continual failure to meet its resettlement targets."
"A year ago, the United States made a pledge to address the Iraqi refugee crisis and we have failed to keep that promise," said Refugees International Senior Advocate Kristele Younes in a statement e-mailed to reporters. "In the president's last year in office, a real effort should be made to resettle the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees and provide assistance for those still in the region."
Foley said, "This is a humanitarian program. We need to help people in need."
But he noted that resettlement is not the solution for the vast majority of Iraqis who have fled their country. The United States hopes most will return when Iraq becomes safe and stable.
In the meantime, he said, the U.S. has provided $175 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq refugees living in the region and will give an additional $200 million this year. E-mail to a friend