Washington The United States will soon begin admitting a bigger trickle of the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq, acknowledging for the first time the country may never be safe for some who have helped the U.S. there.
After months of agonizing delays and withering criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers, the Bush administration has finalized new guidelines to screen Iraqi refugees, including those seeking asylum because helping the Americans has put them at huge risk.
The 2 million-plus people - the fastest growing refugee population in the world - have left Iraq, but Washington has balked at allowing them into the United States for security reasons.
Since the war began in 2003, fewer than 800 Iraqi refugees have been admitted, angering critics who argued the United States is obligated to assist many more, particularly those whose work for American agencies or contractors placed them in danger.
Now, under enhanced screening measures aimed at weeding out potential terrorists - announced this week by the Department of Homeland Security - the administration plans to allow nearly 7,000 Iraqis to resettle in the United States by the end of September.
As with incoming refugees from other countries, Iraqis accepted for resettlement in the U.S. will be given assistance from both government and private aid agencies, including language and job training in the communities that will be their new homes, officials said.
"America's tradition of welcoming international refugees and responding to humanitarian emergencies is unrivaled," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. "Yet we also must be mindful of the security risks associated with admitting refugees from war-torn countries - especially countries infiltrated by large numbers of terrorists."
Homeland Security officials would not discuss what the enhanced process entails, but several people familiar with the program said it includes additional interviews, biometric screening and cross-checks against employer databases, none of which are necessarily required for non-Iraqi refugees.