By ARSHAD MOHAMMED
The United States said on Wednesday it aimed to interview about 7,000 Iraqi refugees for possible U.S. resettlement by the end of September as it sought to blunt criticism that it took in only 202 last year.
The State Department also said it would offer $18 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help displaced Iraqis, acting after lawmakers sharply questioned why the United States had resettled so few since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“The United States and the international community can best help displaced Iraqis by quelling the violence in Iraq,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky said, arguing that restoring security would allow many refugees to return home.
“At the same time, we have a responsibility to respond to the immediate needs of Iraqis who have fled violence and persecution,” she said at a news conference with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
The UNHCR estimates that up to 2 million Iraqis have moved to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, before and since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while 1.7 million Iraqis are internally displaced.
UNHCR’s Guterres welcomed the U.S. offer of assistance and stressed that resettling refugees would never fully address the problem and that a political solution in Iraq was needed to allow the vast majority of refugees to go home.
Asked if the U.S. aid was enough, he replied: “Well, the dimension of the problem is so huge that nothing is anytime (ever) enough but I think it’s a very good start, a very good step in the right direction.”
The United States has accepted 466 Iraqi refugees since 2003, triggering congressional criticism that it had not done enough. The State Department last week said it had created a task force to ensure the United States was doing “its share.”
AID WORKERS SKEPTICAL
Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey told reporters the low number of Iraqi refugees in recent years reflected what was then the need, which increased after the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Shi’ite mosque in Samarra.
“It really was not until after the Samarra bombing … that the sectarian violence began to reach a level that there was significant outward movement,” Sauerbrey told reporters.
“There was really nothing that was indicating that there was any significant issue in terms of an outflow until — I would say the first real indication that we had began to reach us three to four months ago.”
Aid workers reacted skeptically to her comment, saying there had been a significant rise in refugee flows since the Samarra bombing but the scope of the humanitarian needs was clear long before the last few months.
Kristele Younes, an advocate for the Refugees International aid group, said UNHCR had “been asking for help for more than the last three months … They have been voicing concern for the last year at least, saying they were seeing increases in the outflows and that they could not handle the (situation).”
U.S. officials said they hoped to interview about 7,000 Iraqi refugees during the current U.S. fiscal year, which ends on September 30, but they said it was unclear when those approved would actually make it to the United States.
At best, Sauerbrey said about half that number might be ready to travel to the United States by the end of September.
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