- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Department of Homeland Security has begun interviewing dozens of Iraqi refugees in Jordan for possible resettlement in the United States this year, and interviews will soon start in Syria and Turkey, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

The State Department, meanwhile, said that a highest-level U.S. visit to Damascus during President Bush’s second term was strictly focused on refugee issues and did not provide an opening for senior dialogue on other matters.

Washington-based officials from the Department of Homeland Security are conducting interviews this week in Jordan, one of the countries with the largest inflow of Iraqi refugees. The interviews are the first in a series of thousands planned for this year and are meant to determine whether an applicant is a security threat to the United States.

“Interviews are going on in Jordan and will soon expand to Syria, Turkey and other countries in the region,” one U.S. official said.

Another official said the initial screening includes Iraqis who have been categorized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as those classified as eligible by U.S. embassies.

The officials, who asked not to be named, declined to disclose details about the number of Iraqis being interviewed and the exact locations where interviews are being conducted, citing security reasons.

The administration said last month that the U.S. could take in up to 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year, but that number is not likely to be reached.

Ellen R. Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, met on Monday in Damascus with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, but officials said the rare face-to-face exchange is not likely to ease tensions.

“The purpose of Ellen’s visit was to discuss the refugee issue, and that’s what her conversations focused on. I don’t think we see it as anything more or less than that,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

He said the Syrians complained that the huge influx of Iraqis is a burden for the country’s immigration system, but they promised to help.

On Saturday, U.S. and Syrian officials met in Baghdad during a gathering of Iraq’s neighbors, but both sides warned that improving relations would take much more.

“This is just a start, and we cannot predict how this start would end, but we hope the end and the coming steps will be positive and constructive,” Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara said after talks in Cairo yesterday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Javier Solana, foreign policy chief of the European Union, is due in Damascus today, and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi told Syrian President Bashar Assad that the visit was a good opportunity to help end Syria’s estrangement from the West.

Syria’s ambassador to London, Sami Khiyami, wrote yesterday that Washington’s strategy in the Middle East “smells of oil and domination.”

“The U.S. must help create a climate of understanding between the West and the Arabs,” he wrote in Britain’s Guardian daily.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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