Thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria have applied for resettlement in the United States, a U.N. refugee agency official in the Syrian capital said Wednesday.
Laurens Jolles, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Damascus, said the office has registered some 140,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, where the bulk of Iraqis fled to escape the violence in their war-ravaged homeland.
Jolles told The Associated Press that 6,700 of them applied this year for resettlement, including 4,662 seeking to resettle in the U.S.
A U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington declined immediate comment.
Syria is home to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and says the influx has strained its education, health and housing systems, pushing the government to tighten visa requirements and to call for international assistance.
Despite frosty relations with Washington, Damascus recently agreed to allow American interviewers into the country to screen the Iraqis for admission to the United States. The move followed a visit here last month by senior U.S. envoys James Foley and Lori Scialabba, a top immigration official with Homeland Security.
Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries in the region are sheltering more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Already, several hundred refugees from Syria have been given permission to resettle in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia this year.
The U.S. plans to admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees in a year's time. But only 450 were let in last month - less than half the monthly average needed to reach the target.
The Bush administration has conceded a moral obligation to assist Iraqi refugees, but the slow pace of admissions has sparked criticism from refugee advocates and lawmakers.
The blame has been placed on bureaucratic slowdowns - including bickering between the State Department, which is in charge of refugee resettlement, and Homeland Security, which must screen all refugees for admission. Those from Iraq are subjected to additional security checks because of fears of terrorism. ( AP )