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(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Critics of the Bush administration have harsh words for its handling of the refugee crisis triggered by the war in Iraq. A sampler: lack of leadership, ineptitude, lethargy, abdication of responsibility, moral bankruptcy, neglect.
Those involved in bringing Iraqis to the United States say they are doing the best they can. That translates into trying to meet a newly-set target of 1,000 a month for the current budget year, a huge increase over last year when resettlements averaged 134 a month.
The new program got off to an inauspicious start, according to State Department figures. In October, the first month of fiscal year 2008, the number was 450. In November, it dropped to 362, and in December to 245. The January figures are not available yet.
The number of Iraqis driven from their homes since the war began in 2003 now stands at between 3.2 and more than four million, according to estimates by refugee agencies. The number of Iraqis resettled in the U.S. as refugees stands at just under 3,500 to date.
Another 860 obtained visas under a special program for translators and interpreters, one of the riskiest jobs in the country. More than 200 have been killed for working with the Americans.
Does the U.S. have a moral obligation to help because it started the war that uncorked ethnic violence? Yes, say senior State Department officials, particularly for those Iraqis who worked with Americans and put their lives at risk. But President George W. Bush has stayed silent on the issue and ignored appeals to show leadership in dealing with the world's largest displaced population, after Darfur.
"The value of a presidential commitment to resolving this crisis cannot be overstated," Ken Bacon, the head of the relief organisation Refugees International said in a letter to Bush before the president left on his Middle East tour in January. The letter was co-signed by 20 prominent refugee advocates.
LESSON FROM VIETNAM
U.S. history provides an object lesson in the importance of presidential commitment to solving a refugee crisis.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford pushed ahead, in the face of widespread domestic opposition, with a massive programme to bring to the U.S. South Vietnamese who had sided with the Americans in the Vietnam war and feared reprisals from the Communist victors.
Between May 1 and December 20, more than 130,000 Vietnamese were moved to new lives in the United States. Doing anything less, Ford said at time would have been "a moral shame."
While still slow, the pace of processing Iraqis through a complicated bureaucracy picked up last year after mounting pressure from Democrats in Congress, hearings on the issue - and a leaked memo by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.
He complained about bureaucratic bottlenecks and delays caused by a process that involves security interviews both by the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security. Both have now appointed coordinators to reduce red tape.
But seemingly simple measures are still waiting for a green light. Such as security interviews by videoconference instead of person-to-person meetings at the end of a nightmarish procedure that forces applicants to leave Iraq and present themselves to a U.S. consulate in a neighbouring country.
(The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is the world's biggest but except for a small number of exceptional cases, it does not process applications or handle interviews).
AIRLIFT TO GUAM
Where there is a will, there is a way to remove bureaucratic obstacles as the Clinton administration did in 1996, when the military carried out Operation Pacific Haven - an airlift of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds under attack from Saddam Hussein's army.
The Kurds were flown 6,000 miles to a U.S. base on Guam where they went through the asylum process in three to four months, less than half the time it normally takes. John Dallager, the general in charge of the operation, said it would "undoubtedly be a role model for future humanitarian efforts."
Security and background checks have tightened since September 11 and are more rigorous for Iraqis than for almost any other nationality. But it is difficult to imagine a more secure location for vetting refugees than a U.S. military base.
There is scant chance that the present administration would emulate the Guam precedent - for political, not security reasons.
Violence has been going down in Iraq, partly as a result of a greater U.S. military presence and changed counter-insurgency strategy, partly because of successive waves of ethnic cleansing so thorough that few mixed communities remain. Thus there is no need for one sect to drive out or kill members of the other.
Launching a major, high-profile Guam-style effort might, in the minds of some in the White House, send a signal that the U.S. has given up hope for an Iraq peaceful and stable enough to allow Iraqis to return to their homes. So far, many of those homes are occupied by people unwilling to leave them.
Washington officials counter criticism of U.S. refugee efforts by pointing out that the U.S. has been the single largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to Iraq, with a sharp increase from $43 million in 2006 to $200 million in 2007.
Given the monumental scale of the problem, some see even that increase as a pittance.
In a letter to Bush this month, Democratic congressmen Alcee Hastings and John Dingell urged the president to "appropriately address" the humanitarian crisis and include $1.5 billion in next year's budget.
"We note that...the funding we have requested is less than the cost of one week's worth of war funds." (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com) (Editing by Sean Maguire)