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Bush agrees to help Iraqi refugees

A new opportunity in US for 7,000

An Iraqi refugee waited in line with her mother to get aid in Baghdad Tuesday. The Bush administration said it will contribute $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program. Only 202 Iraqis were allowed into the United States last year. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration agreed yesterday to greatly expand the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the country and to pay more to help Iraq's Arab neighbors cope with the human tide fleeing increasing violence and economic hardship in their country.

The decision to allow about 7,000 Iraqis to come to the United States answers mounting political and diplomatic pressure on the administration to do more to remedy the consequences of a war it largely started. Only 202 Iraqis were allowed in last year.

The administration also said it will immediately contribute $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program. The United Nations has asked for $60 million from nations around the world.

Although the United Nations estimates that 3.8 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the war began nearly four years ago, the United States has allowed only about 600 to settle in the United States.

The US proposal also includes plans to offer special treatment for Iraqis still in their country whose cooperation with the United States puts them at risk. Expanding visa programs for those Iraqis would require legislation in Congress, State Department Undersecretary Paula J. Dobriansky said yesterday.

Some 2 million Iraqis have left their country, and an additional 1.8 million are believed to have relocated inside Iraq. The refugee flow increased sharply as sectarian violence escalated the past year. The numbers have overwhelmed the hospitality of Arab neighbors such as Syria and Jordan.

The United Nations says most who have been uprooted have no desire to come to the United States, and want to return to their homes in Iraq when fighting stops.

But allies, UN diplomats, and lawmakers of both parties have recently told the administration that the small number of Iraqis the United States has allowed in looks miserly.

Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a hearing last week that the United States could bring in 7,000 Iraqis this year -- exactly the number announced yesterday.

The move is a step in the right direction, considering the United States is a "chief cause" of the refugee problem, said Carolyn Saour, an Iraqi-American Christian living in Houston. Still, 7,000 "is severely low for the amount of damage that's been done over the years," she said.

The United Nations wants to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees this year. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called the US pledge "a relevant contribution."

Guterres has implicitly criticized the United States in the past for allowing other nations to shoulder so much of the burden. He met with Rice yesterday, and afterward described a "very frank and very positive discussion on how to work better."