Syria to let US personnel process Iraqi refugees

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WASHINGTON, Nov 9 (Reuters) Syria has agreed to allow US officials into the country to process refugees from war-torn Iraq for admission into the United States, a senior State Department official said.

The United States in turn has renewed its commitment to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees in Syria, said David Welch, assistant secretary for the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau.

''We do appreciate Syria's decision to renew cooperation with us on our programs to address this humanitarian issue,'' Welch told yesterday the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the West Asia and Africa yesterday.

He said there were probably more than 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. ''Until recently Syria has mostly kept its borders open to those coming out of Iraq and has not sent them back,'' he said. ''We're trying to help.'' In September, US officials said the United States had only taken in about 1,700 Iraqi refugees. However, they also pledged to start taking in as many as 1,000 a month in new processing centers.

Relations between Washington and Damascus are strained over a host of issues. The Bush administration accuses Syria of allowing militants to cross its borders into Iraq, undermining the democratic process in Lebanon, and backing Palestinian militants.

The US government, facing criticism for delays in processing and admitting Iraqi refugees to the United States, had blamed some of the problem on Syria not issuing visas to U.S. staff to process the refugees.

The agreement with Syria followed a recent trip to Damascus by James Foley, the senior US coordinator for Iraqi refugees, Welch said.

After a period of time in which Syria had not issued visas to US personnel to process U.S. visas for Iraqi refugees, ''they (the Syrians) have now issued a handful to DHS (Department of Homeland Security) personnel,'' he said.

Sectarian fighting and other violence that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq have forced more than four million people to leave their homes. More than two million people are displaced within Iraq and up to 2.2 million more are believed to be in Syria and Jordan, according to UN data.

Critics, including US politicians and top diplomatic officials, have complained that Iraqi refugees faced waits of up to two years because of bureaucratic bottlenecks and rigorous security measures put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The UN High Commissioner on Refugees has referred about 10,000 Iraqis and their family members in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon to the United States for consideration for resettlement.

Reuters MP VP0440

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