- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

These days, the critics who want a rapid and total U.S. disengagement from Iraq portray everything that happens in and around that country as an unmitigated disaster. They often allege that Iraq is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, fueled by economic dislocation and large numbers of refugees and displaced persons. The refugee problem in Iraq is indeed severe. Yet, just as the administration’s opponents unduly denigrate the prospects for improving the current security situation, they also deliberately misstate the causes of Iraq’s refugee flows and ignore the administration’s ongoing efforts to deal with them.

According to U.N. estimates, between 300,000 and 500,000 Iraqis have been displaced since the February 2006 Samarra mosque attack; close to 1.5 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries. While these numbers are grim, the critics rarely acknowledge that a significant percentage of these refugees fled Iraq long before the regime change in Baghdad.

Since 2003, the United States has spent over $800 million on humanitarian relief programs for Iraqis, with a significant portion of these monies targeted to help refugees and displaced persons. Moreover, recognizing the need to cut through the bureaucratic red tape, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice established in early February a high-level Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force, chaired by Paula Dobriansky, the State Department’s able undersecretary for democracy and global affairs and a former Reagan administration official.

The task force is working side-by-side with Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, once again demonstrating that the administration knows how to work productively with international organizations. Indeed, the United States will play a key role in the upcoming April donors conference in Geneva, designed to raise major financial contributions to help Iraqi refugees. Bolstering the capacity of the Iraqi government, international relief organizations, and of neighboring countries to assist refugees is another major priority. Meanwhile, for at least some Iraqi refugees, third-country resettlement is the best option; one of the task force’s major goals is to streamline the processing of the applicants and expedite their transit.

Accordingly, today, the new and streamlined interviews of Iraqi refugees by U.S. Homeland Security Department officials have been launched in Jordan and Syria. Congressional action to create a new visa category, and remove some existing statutory obstacles, is also needed.

However, as Mrs. Dobriansky correctly acknowledges, the best long-term solution to the Iraqi refugee and displaced persons problems is to improve security in Iraq. Thus, humanitarian goals and U.S. security interests are best advanced by a combination of the administration’s military, diplomatic and refugee policies, accompanied by an adroit engagement with other countries and international organizations. While much work remains to be done, Miss Rice and her team are off to a good start toward mitigating the Iraq refugee problem.

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