Syria says Iraq evading responsibility to refugees

DAMASCUS, Jan 18 (Reuters) - The Syrian government accused Iraq on Monday of letting down its citizens by failing to help hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria.

"We find it strange that the Iraqi government is not doing its duty and is exercising every method to shy away from taking responsibility toward its nationals," Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad said.

"I am ashamed to discuss Iraqi support (for the refugees). We told the Iraqi government that these nationals are Iraqi and they are suffering real, not imaginary hardship," Mekdad said after attending an international conference in the Syrian capital on the refugees.

An estimated 1.5 million Iraqis fled Iraq after the 2003 U.S. led-invasion led to turmoil and sectarian conflict in their homeland. Most went to Syria, which received them despite its difficult relations with Iraq.

Iraq has invited refugees back, but offered only a few million of the $750 million pledged by governments worldwide last year to help the refugees. More than $350 million came from the United States.

Only 50,000 refugees have returned to Iraq, according to the the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees.

Political distrust between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had spent years in exile in Syria, and Syria's ruling apparatus has helped make Maliki wary of releasing funds to aid refugees in Syria.

Ties between the two countries worsened last year after Baghdad accused Damascus of complicity in bomb attacks that killed more than 200 people in Baghdad. Syria refused to hand over suspects in several of the bombings, saying the evidence Iraq had against them was not strong enough.

Mekdad, a key figure in Syrian foreign policy, made it clear that he did not expect an improvement in relations between Damascus and Baghdad unless the Iraqi elections on March 7 brought in a government more friendly to Syria.

He said the refugee issue should not be a political casualty of the state of relations between Iraq and Syria.

"Syria always said it was with the Iraqi people against terrorism, against bombing, killing and destruction, but the Iraqi government has to take its responsibility and not blame others," Mekdad said.

"We have provided every opportunity for the Iraqi government to support its citizen refugees ... and not put the burden on Syria and international organisations, he said. "Syria is already suffering from drought and other problems." (Editing by Andrew Roche)