- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

A systematic resettlement of returning Iraqis has begun with the arrival of about 500 from Dubai in what a State Department official called “a test run.”

“The priority is to get refugees back into Iraq, but the conditions aren’t conducive yet for large-scale returns,” the official said. “In the meantime, we’re trying to do confidence-building cases.”

The official, who asked not to be identified, said that between 300 and 400 out of 5,200 Iraqi refugees in the Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia would go home by the end of the month.

Next, the United States will allow the gradual return of refugees from Iran, where about 200,000 live, and other places such as Jordan, depending on conditions, the official said.

Though thousands of refugees have passed in and out of Iraq’s porous borders, these steps represent the U.S.-led coalition administration’s first formal attempt to facilitate the return of refugees.

Dennis McNamara, special envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, made similar statements this week about plans to resettle Iraqis.

The coalition has been trying to restore electricity, water supplies and other basic services in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The security situation in Baghdad and predominantly Sunni cities north and west of the capital has been tense with almost daily attacks on U.S. troops.

About 3 million Iraqis left during more than two decades of rule by Saddam Hussein. The United Nations estimates that up to 500,000 refugees in neighboring countries may seek to go back once the security situation there improves.

The State Department official said the Iraqis returning in the initial programs already have a place to live.

The United Nations and a Washington-based refugee-watch group both said it makes sense to take small steps first.

“Iraq is not ready to receive large numbers of refugees,” Mr. McNamara said.

Lavinia Limon, the director of the U.S. Committee on Refugees, who just returned from Iraq, said, “The caution is warranted.”

But Mr. McNamara and Ms. Limon also expressed concern about how the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad is handling some parts of the refugee challenge.

“The security situation in Iraq, and in Baghdad in particular, has deteriorated,” Mr. McNamara said upon his return from his second trip to Iraq this month. “It was noticeably worse during the latest visit to Baghdad than it was at the start of June.”

Ms. Limon said she observed a meeting in coalition headquarters during her trip that was supposed to be about Iraqis forced from their homes by war but still in the country. But she said the meeting was confused and focused mostly on the Iraqi refugees in the Rafha camp.

Iraqi immigration consultants at the meeting erroneously thought the Iraqis at the Rafha camp fled before the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, she said. In truth, they were displaced after the failed 1991 uprisings against Saddam after the Persian Gulf war, she said.

Both the U.S. military and Iraqis wanted a detailed list of the Rafha refugees before allowing the first group to return, even though they had been interviewed widely during the past 12 years by U.N. officials, Ms. Limon said.

Noting that the Saudi government had offered the refugees between $3,000 and $7,000 each to go home — down from $10,000 before the war — she said the list could be sold on the streets of Iraq and make the returning Iraqis vulnerable.

“That’s like a to-do list for criminals,” she said.


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