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Under pressure from United Nations, U.S. agrees to refugee program

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Posted: February 14, 2007 5:56 p.m.
Updated: March 1, 2007 5:00 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration plans to allow about 7,000 Iraqi refugees to settle in the United States over the next year, a huge expansion at a time of mounting international pressure to help millions who have fled their homes in the nearly four-year-old war.
    The United States has allowed only 463 Iraq refugees into the country since the war began in March 2003, even though some 3.8 million have been uprooted. A senior State Department official described the expanded program on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement later Wednesday.
    The administration also plans to pledge $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program. The United Nations has asked for $60 million from nations around the world.
    Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Wednesday with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to outline the expanded U.S. program. The 7,000 would be resettled from nations outside Iraq where they have fled. The U.S. proposal also includes plans to offer special treatment for Iraqis still in the country whose cooperation with the U.S. government puts them at risk from sectarian reprisal.
    Most refugees have fled to Syria and Jordan, both of which have recently tried to restrict the influx. The U.N. estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 people flee Iraq each month and have dwindling options of where to go. Other Iraqis relocate inside then country, with some leaving neighborhoods that were once mixed among Sunnis and Shiites and resettling where their sect is more concentrated.
    U.S. diplomats have discussed the refugee situation directly with the Syrian government, the State Department official said. That is notable because of the administration’s reluctance to engage Syria in high-level discussions about security in Iraq. The U.S. has also discussed the refugee problem with Jordan, a close ally, the official said.
    The U.N. and allies have suggested the previous U.S. policy was stingy considering the U.S. role in starting the war. After The Associated Press reported the plan to allow far greater numbers to come to the United States, Jordan’s chief government spokesman did not sound impressed.
    Nasser Judeh said 7,000 is still a small number compared to the 700,000 Iraqi refugees Jordan has had to accommodate.
    ‘‘7,000 Iraqi refugees is just 1 percent of the number we have,’’ Judeh said.
    Syria has taken in an estimated 1 million Iraqis. It was the last Arab country to take in large numbers.
    The U.N. classifies most Iraqi refugees as having only ‘‘temporary protection status,’’ rather than as permanent refugees — presumably because it assumes most will return to Iraq after the fighting ends. Guterres’ office has said it hopes to permanently resettle this year up to 20,000 Iraqis whom it considers the most vulnerable, including women, children, survivors of torture, the seriously ill and minorities.
    The worsening humanitarian crisis has resulted in calls for action by members of Congress and a plea from the United Nations for more countries to help out.
    ‘‘It’s not fair that the burden is not being shared effectively. A very limited number of countries is paying a very heavy price,’’ Guterres said on a recent tour of the Mideast.
    In a budget request filed with Congress last week, President Bush asked for $35 million to help Iraq’s refugees next year, and another $15 million for this year.
    Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the administration ‘‘has been slow to react to a worsening situation, amid ample warnings.’’ Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told Rice at a hearing last week that the United States could admit about 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year.
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