BAGHDAD - The US government has opened its first permanent office in Baghdad for Iraqi refugees seeking to settle in the United States, responding to criticism that the Bush administration has failed to help thousands of Iraqis whose lives are in danger because of their work with American organizations.
The office, which began interviewing applicants on May 10, has already completed processing 80 embassy employees to leave and the first two arrived in the United States this week, according to Ambassador James Foley, who is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior coordinator for Iraqi refugees. Foley, in an interview in Washington, said that 1,141 refugees were settled in the United States in May and that he believes the administration would reach its goal for this fiscal year of 12,000 by Oct. 1.
The Baghdad refugee processing office is in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, so that Iraqis who cannot travel outside the country can still apply. Iraqis have complained for years that they could not reach offices in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt because of cost or visa restrictions.
"The whole goal is to provide greater access to people who are in trouble or in threat based on their association with the US," said an American official in Baghdad, who asked that her name not be used because she was not allowed to speak publicly.
More than 4.5 million Iraqis have fled from their homes since the 2003 American-led invasion, making it the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, about 1.2 million Iraqis are in Syria, at least 500,000 are in Jordan, and an additional 350,000 are in Egypt, Lebanon, and Gulf countries.
In addition, nearly 2 million are internally displaced inside Iraq.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq last week told a donors group in Sweden that his government would provide $195 million to resettle refugees who return to Iraq. He has so far, despite urging from Bush administration officials, provided no more than $25 million to support Iraqis who are outside the country.
The UNHCR, which has been providing basic support to Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, has said it needs an additional $400 million or it may have to reduce the aid it provides.