Sunday, February 04, 2007

Syria rejects accusations by Iraq over refugee restrictions; Says some 'linked to Washington' trying to stir split

Iraqi refugee children at the store which carries basic foodstuffs at al-Tanf camp in Syria. Almost one third of the camp’s residents are children under the age of 14.

DAMASCUS, Syria: Syria on Sunday dismissed Iraqi accusations that it was taking measures against Iraqi refugees while welcoming Sunni figures wanted by the Baghdad government.

A Syrian government official rejected Iraq's allegations that Damascus was making problems for Iraqi refugees by restricting visa regulations, saying the accusations were deliberately trying to sour Syria-Iraq relations.

"Some Iraqi parties, which are linked to Washington, are unhappy with the positive developments that have occurred in Syrian-Iraqi relations," the official told The Associated Press. The official was referring to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Syria and Iraq late last year, more than two decades after they were cut over ideological disputes, Syria's support of Iran in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and charges that Baghdad supported Syrian militants.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh last week said Iraqis going to Syria only were given 15-day entrance visas and some were having to leave the country for at least 30 days before being allowed to return.

"Thousands of Iraqis are being put in a difficult situation," al-Dabbagh told the U.S.-financed Alhurra television Friday.

But the Syrian official said Damascus was "exerting all-out efforts to help the Iraqi people in their ordeal. ... Syria was still standing alongside the Iraqis."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

However, the official said Damascus was overburdened by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to Syria and said measures introduced by the Damascus government on Iraqi newcomers were taken for security and economic reasons. He added that granting residency permits to the Iraqis' was under discussion.

Syria, with a population of 18 million, is the refuge of choice for those fleeing violence in Iraq primarily because of its relaxed entry regulations for Arabs, the relatively low cost of living and availability of schools and health care. The Damascus office of the United Nations refugee agency says about 40,000 Iraqis arrive monthly.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune

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