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U.S. slow to meet needs, refugees say

National GovernmentFinanceNational SecurityArmed ConflictsRefugeeGovernment

Mustafa Hamad Rassoul doesn't see how his family can survive.

Back in Baghdad, the 55-year-old Iraqi Kurd says, the money he made running a clothing shop was more than enough to house and feed his two wives and 10 children. But here in Syria, where he came last year after being threatened by the Mahdi Army, the food and cash assistance his family receives doesn't last the month.

Rassoul blames the United States.

"America always talks about human rights," he says while waiting at the U.N. refugee registration center in this city outside Damascus. "They come and say they are liberating us. Let them find a place where I can live."

The demand echoes around the world. The United States has admitted more than 16,000 Iraqi refugees in the past two years - including 202 who have settled in Maryland - and expects to more than double that number by the end of 2009. The nearly $570million the United States has spent since the beginning of 2007 to improve conditions for displaced Iraqis, both in Iraq and abroad, has surpassed the contributions of the rest of the world combined.

Critics say it is not enough.

"The United States is responsible for this mess, frankly," says Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that advises governments on conflict resolution. "It certainly was responsible for allowing the chaos that enveloped Iraq. It should therefore bear the responsibilities."

More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the kidnappings, car bombings and killings that have racked their homeland since the U.S.-led invasion almost six years ago. Most remain in Syria, Jordan and other neighboring countries, where they are drawing down their savings while burdening local services.

Officials on all sides warn of a population whose growing desperation could threaten stability in the region and beyond.

A coalition of advocates, including Refugees International, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is calling on the United States to nearly triple the money it spends on the displaced Iraqis while allowing the entry of as many as 105,000 in 2009 - a sevenfold increase over current admissions.

"It's true that the U.S. takes more refugees than most countries," says Kristèle Younes, a senior advocate for Refugees International. "It does provide more money. But in this particular situation, we need to look at the military budget versus the humanitarian budget. The resettlement numbers versus the ones who actually need to be resettled.

"When we look at those numbers, we realize how small the response has been."

Ambassador James B. Foley agrees that the United States has a "unique responsibility here" and that the security and stability of the refugee population is in the U.S. national interest. But the State Department's senior coordinator for Iraq refugee issues says it would be "impossible, really, to satisfy each and every critic."

"We have developed an increasingly robust processing capacity for Iraqi refugees in multiple locations across the Middle East," Foley says, which put the United States "in a position to significantly increase" the number admitted to the United States for resettlement in 2009. "On assistance," he adds, "we will remain in the forefront of efforts to support and sustain displaced Iraqis both inside and outside the country."

Now, he says, the United States wants to see the rest of the world - particularly Europe, the wealthy nations of the Middle East, and Iraq itself - join in. "The fact of the matter is that we stepped forward with steadily increasing contributions throughout [2008] because others largely did not," he says. "Looking to the future, this pattern is hardly sustainable."

With the election of the Barack Obama, refugee advocates are hopeful of more help. The president-elect hasn't spoken about resettlements. But during the early stages of the campaign, he pledged to increase financial support for the displaced.

"This mass movement of people is a threat to the security of the Middle East and to our common humanity," he told a campaign audience before the Iowa primary. "We have a strategic interest - and a moral obligation - to act."

By the time Foley was chosen last year to lead the State Department response to the Iraqi displacement, the Bush administration had drawn withering criticism for seeming to play down a gathering crisis.

On the eve of the March 2003 invasion, the United States and others dispatched aid workers to the region around Iraq to respond to a possible refugee exodus. But it wasn't until nearly three years later, when the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra touched off new levels of violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, that large numbers began loading up cars and buses for Jordan and Syria.

The outflow caught U.S. and international officials by surprise. In early 2007, Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky predicted that the United States could process 7,000 candidates for resettlement to the United States by the end of the year. But without the necessary personnel in place to receive and vet the Iraqis, the actual number was 1,608.

President George W. Bush did not mention the crisis in public until March of this year, when he said after a meeting with King Abdullah II that the Jordanian monarch had "pointed out something which I knew, but I wasn't exactly sure how it was affecting his country, that there are roughly three-quarters of a million Iraqi citizens who have moved to Jordan."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has presided over hearings on the crisis as co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission. "I think the United States is trying to keep this out of the limelight," the Maryland Democrat says. "They're trying to show positive developments in Iraq, and they know that if they highlight the people who are dislocated refugees, that's an issue that they don't know how to deal with."

Officials on all sides say their goal is a peaceful and secure Iraq to which the displaced may return voluntarily. Resettlement in a third country is considered an option for only a small percentage of the most vulnerable; the majority are expected to remain where they are until conditions permit their safe return. But in this as in other refugee crises, resettlements are seen by advocates and others as a tangible measure of the international commitment.

Foley and his Department of Homeland Security counterpart, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services associate director Lori Scialabba, were appointed in September 2007 in part to fulfill the administration's goal of admitting 12,000 Iraqis by the end of September of this year.

The final tally was 13,823. In September, Foley said the system now in place should permit the entry of at least 17,000 more by the end of September 2009. The rest of the world - Canada, Australia, Sweden and other European countries - has resettled fewer than 6,000 Iraqis.

The nearly $400million that the United States spent in support of Iraqis last year helped buy food for refugees in Syria, set up medical clinics in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and pay for books, uniforms and transportation for students in Jordan.

Foley is calling on other governments to increase their support. He argues that for countries with means to ignore the needs of the refugees is neither realistic nor responsible.

"The fate of these people and of this region affects everyone in the region and in the world at large," he says. "And so we have to do a better job of persuading them that finger-pointing at the U.S. is not an answer, it's not a policy, it's not a response."

Foley, like officials in Syria and Jordan, is also pressing Iraq to contribute. While a committee of the Iraqi parliament is pushing for $4billion next year to support Iraqi citizens abroad, the policy of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been to encourage them to come home.

"The responsibility of the Iraqi government is to facilitate the process of returning to Iraq, not to make it easier for the Iraqis to stay here in Syria," says Adnan al-Sharafy, an official at the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus.

Iraqi officials have offered payments and organized flights and bus rides from Cairo and Damascus for refugees to go back. But with continuing violence in the country and no effective system in place to resolve disputes between returning homeowners and squatters, neither the United States, the United Nations nor refugee advocates are encouraging returns.

Foley described the financial incentives and free transportation as "far short of what will be required."

"The Iraqi government's unwillingness thus far to significantly share the international burden of assisting the refugees would perhaps become more understandable if it were undertaking a serious and credible effort to prepare for large-scale returns," he says.

The coalition of advocates is calling on the United States to increase its support for Iraqis in the region to $1.35billion in 2009 while admitting 105,500 Iraqis for resettlement.

"We agree that there should be an international response," says Younes of Refugees International. "But what we have been saying from the very beginning is that the U.S. cannot expect others to step in until it shows strong leadership.

"It has started doing that. It has increased its response. It needs to continue in that direction and increase substantially."

John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, disagrees, saying the United States has been generous in response to the refugee crisis. "It was not the responsibility of the United States to turn the entire Iraqi population into a client of welfare because of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein," says Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He objects to what he described as an inclination by some toward "blaming every consequence of the overthrow of Saddam on the United States."

"A lot of things flowed from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, including the unleashing of animosities within the Iraqi population that had existed for decades under Baath Party rule if not for centuries because of the split within Islam," he says. "Now, that has resulted in some undoubtedly unhappy and even tragic consequences. But that doesn't mean that the United States is responsible for each and every one of those consequences."

Denis Halliday, a former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, has been a vocal critic not only of the war but of U.S. policy toward Iraq dating to the U.N. embargo from 1991 to 2003 - he was the first U.N. official to track Iraqis killed by U.S. and British fliers patrolling the no-fly zones between the first and second Iraq wars. He says the United States must take "full responsibility for what's happened to this country."

"The U.S. needs to pay, in my view, massive compensation to this country," he says. "And much of that, if paid up now in advance and quickly as possible, could be used to rehabilitate the conditions and the needs and the services to bring people back into the country. ...

"Once that is in motion, I'm quite convinced, and we've seen some already, there will be neighbors, the Iranians, the Kuwaitis, Saudis and others will undoubtedly put in money and other resources. But the leadership has got to come from those responsible for the calamity. And that is absolutely and only the United States of America."

Tomorrow In Baltimore, Iraqi professionals face multiple frustrations as they try to begin their lives anew.

About the series Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown traveled to Syria and Jordan on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and administered by the International Center for Journalists. More information is available at www.pulitzercenter.org and www.icfj.org.

In recent years, United Nations officials say, when refugees have been identified by name in the Western news media, their families in Iraq have been threatened or harmed. The Sun permitted many of the refugees interviewed for these articles to adopt assumed names to protect their relatives in Iraq.

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