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Iraqi Refugee Crisis Focus of US Lawmaker's Attention

The Iraqi refugee crisis was a focus of attention again on Capitol Hill and Washington this week. Two key Senate Democrats urged President Bush to do more, while a bipartisan group of House lawmakers urged Iraq's government to sharply increase spending to assist Iraqi refugees who fled sectarian fighting, and those displaced from their homes inside the country. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

In a letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, five Democrats and four Republicans urge Iraq to use a greater portion of its budget, assisted by rising revenues from oil exports, to help refugees and internally-displaced persons.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 4.5 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S. and coalition invasion in 2003, including 2.5 million inside Iraq and two million who fled to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria.

The lawmakers say money allocated in Iraq's budget for internally-displaced persons rose from six-million dollars to 13 million in 2008, with Baghdad contributing $25 million to neighboring countries dealing with refugees.

With sharply increased oil prices over the past year, they say Iraq could end up with $60 billion in revenues in 2008 and a $25-billion surplus.

Democrat William Delahunt says while the United States bears significant responsibility to help the situation, Iraq's government needs to sharply increase its contributions.

"We want to call upon the Maliki government to provide $1 billion to assist internally-displaced persons and refugees whose conditions are becoming more desperate on a daily basis," said William Delahunt.

Signatories of the letter say $1 billion would amount to only four percent of estimates of Iraq's projected surplus.

Rosa DeLauro is a Connecticut Democrat:

"Such a commitment would demonstrate Iraq's commitment to bringing home those who fled the violence, and promoting a much-needed reconciliation that is going to be critical in that nation and would be a clear sign that Iraq is serious about standing on its own and lessening its reliance on the U.S. so that it can truly realize its future as a sovereign nation," said Rosa DeLauro.

In appearances on Capitol Hill, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and U.S. military commander in Iraq General David Petraeus said Iraq's government is now increasing its spending for reconstruction.

But if Iraqi leaders do significantly step up spending for refugees, how would the efforts be managed, and would funds be lost to corruption or mismanagement?

For a start, Congressman Delahunt suggests that Iraq make a substantial contribution to the United Nations to help host nations deal with refugee populations.

Democrat Jane Harman calls successful reconstruction of Iraq key to getting Iraqis to return.

"If there is finally some reasonable reconstruction, or I would argue construction, or modernization of the country, there could be jobs to lure Iraqis back to their own country especially if security is achieved on the ground," said Jane Harman.

Although the number of Iraqis admitted to the United States has increased in recent months, the Bush administration has faced criticism on the issue.

U.S. officials have struggled toward a goal of 12,000 admissions by the end of the current fiscal year in September, involving a process of reviewing referrals from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and an inter-agency government screening process.

While the U.S. has provided $208 million this year for refugees, State Department senior coordinator for Iraqi refugee issues, James Foley, says there has been a shortfall of $375 to $400 million in fulfilled pledges by various country donors.

But Foley too underscores the importance of the Iraqi government's role, noting that Arab governments in particular are waiting for Baghdad to make a greater financial contribution.

"Everywhere I went there was a unanimous view that the government of Iraq needed to step forward first and itself contribute substantially to meeting the needs of its citizens who have had to flee to neighboring countries," said James Foley.

In remarks to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (an independent body comprising members of Congress) Foley predicted that tremendous numbers of Iraqi refugees will arrive in the U.S. in coming months.

However, he said European donor nations expressed similar views on the need for Iraqi government commitment.

The Washington representative of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Michael Gabaudan, said that in Iraq, improvements in security in Iraq are not yet broad enough or sufficiently sustainable for the agency to recommend large-scale returns, adding that attempts at political reconciliation are still in beginning stages.