US admits more Iraqi refugees but pace still slow

WASHINGTON, March 1 (Reuters) - The United States admitted 444 Iraqi refugees in February, according to preliminary figures released by a U.S. official on Saturday, up from 375 in January but below the pace needed to meet its 12,000 annual target.

James Foley, the U.S. State Department's senior coordinator for Iraqi refugees, said February's figures brought the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States to 1,876 since the U.S. government's 2008 fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

Foley was appointed in September to speed up refugee admissions after the Bush administration was harshly criticized by lawmakers and refugee groups for the slow pace at which the United States had taken in Iraqis.

More than 2 million Iraqis are believed to have fled to neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and eventually triggered a brutal insurgency.

In fiscal 2007, the United States admitted 1,608 Iraqi refugees, up from 202 the previous year.

Foley said the February figures, while an improvement over January's, reflected the number of refugee interviews conducted in the first three months of fiscal 2008. The United States aims to double the number of interviews in the second quarter, and to increase it further in the third quarter, he said.

"So we are on a trajectory to meet our target of 12,000," he said, referring to the objective set for the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

In the past, U.S. officials blamed the slow pace of admissions partly on a five-month period last year when Syria would not admit U.S. interviewers to process refugees.

Syria subsequently agreed to allow in U.S. interviewers.

"The limitations on our processing capacity in Damascus remain a challenge," said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy and who declined to elaborate.