The United States set up a task force to tackle the mounting Iraq refugee crisis, after Washington came under criticism for not doing enough to help millions of people displaced by the war it unleashed nearly four years ago.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the creation of the task force, to be headed by Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky and including the State Department’s top Middle East and Iraq officials.

The team will coordinate US assistance for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons and “devise strategies for Iraqis at risk because of their work with the US government,” Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said.

According to the United Nations, about two million Iraqis, some eight percent of the pre-war population, have fled the country to escape the war and mounting sectarian violence.

Another 1.7 million have been forced to flee their homes to safer areas inside Iraq, and the number of these “internally displaced persons” is growing by 1,000 every day, the International Organization for Migration reported last week.

The United States has come under growing criticism for taking in fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees since leading the 2003 invasion which toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, and for failing to sufficiently fund UN efforts to help the displaced.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack last week said Washington was prepared to take in “a fairly significant number” of Iraqi refugees, but he declined to provide figures and said the government had to follow UN procedures for determining who is eligible for asylum.

While he said the State Department and military were looking at specific cases of Iraqis who could be in danger for having worked with the United States occupation, McCormack expressed concern that offering asylum could unleash an exodus of trained people needed to help rebuild Iraq.

“Certainly we want to do everything we can to encourage those Iraqis who are going to be critical to help rebuilding their country stay in Iraq and invest in their future,” he said.

“At the same time, you also want to honor the service of those individuals who in many cases have risked their lives to help us out.”

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse

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