- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The United States could take in up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees this year — more than three times the number it previously agreed to admit — in an effort to provide some relief to the crisis affecting several Arab countries, the State Department said yesterday.

The department also said it plans to allow Iraqis and Afghans working for the U.S. government in their respective countries to immigrate to the United States after only three years of service instead of the current 15 required by law.

“It’s fair to say that, if we get the referrals [from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees], we could resettle up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees within the president’s determination this year,” said Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

The Bush administration, criticized for resettling only 466 Iraqis since the war began in 2003, said last month that it could accept as many as 7,000 of the more than 2 million Iraqi refugees this year. The annual worldwide refugee cap set by Congress is 75,000.

In order to prevent any terrorists and other dangerous Iraqis from coming to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security is conducting detailed interviews in several countries in the region, U.S. officials said.

They declined to discuss specific questions and techniques being used in the process, but said they are taking all necessary measures to screen applicants sufficiently.

Mrs. Sauerbrey spoke to reporters in Geneva, where she was attending a two-day conference on the Iraqi refugee crisis. Syria and Jordan, which are most affected by the problem, appealed to the participants to help in any way they can. Iraq said it will spend $25 million to aid refugees in neighboring countries.

UNHCR estimates there are more than 4 million displaced Iraqis around the world, including 1.9 million inside Iraq and 2.25 million in neighboring countries, of which 1.2 million are in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt and 200,000 in the Persian Gulf states. Only those who have left Iraq are formally considered refugees.

At the same conference, Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, announced Washington’s plan to make it easier for Iraqis and Afghans working for the United States to move to the United States.

Hundreds of local employees, known as Foreign Service nationals, in Iraq and Afghanistan would be eligible to apply for immigrant visas, commonly referred to as green cards. U.S. officials said those people, many of whom have lost family members, deserve a reward for their sacrifice.

“We want to do right by people who have served well and honorably on behalf of their country and the United States, and we think that’s important,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

He urged Congress to swiftly pass a bill the Bush administration is about to send to Capitol Hill concerning special immigrant visa (SIV) applications.

“The proposed legislation gives the secretary of state the worldwide authority, under exceptional circumstances, to lower the number of years a Foreign Service national must work in order to be eligible for the existing SIV program from 15 to 3 years,” the department said in a separate statement.

Mrs. Dobriansky also endorsed two recently introduced bills — one in the Senate and one in the House — that “seek to expand the existing law on SIV to allow as many as 1,500 interpreters under Departments of Defense and State authority, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, access to the SIV program,” the State Department said.

Mrs. Dobriansky is the chairman of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Interagency Task Force on Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, which was established in February.

• John Zarocostas in Geneva contributed to this report.

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