WASHINGTON — The United States has begun resettling in this country up to 4,000 Iraqi soldiers who surrendered during the Persian Gulf War, an effort that has drawn criticism from a coalition of congressmen who believe the prisoners are receiving special treatment never awarded returning American soldiers.
The U.S. government is paying between $4,000 and $7,000 to relocate each of the enemy prisoners--and in some cases their family members. They have been classified as refugees who would be harmed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if returned home.
The Iraqis are being scattered in small numbers to communities in California, Florida and elsewhere where they will have access to job opportunities, housing and federal social service programs. It is precisely that special consideration that has irked a bipartisan group of 75 members of Congress who are urging President Clinton to deny the refugee status to the Iraqi soldiers.
"This is an incredibly bizarre set of priorities," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
"This nation's priorities regarding war veterans should be focusing on those who served in the American uniform, first and foremost," he said.
Added Rep. Earl Hutto (D-Fla.): "Given the choice, I would rather see that $4,000 go to one of our own veterans and not the people that were shooting at us."
Although prisoners of war are almost always sent home immediately after hostilities end, the situation this time represents a complicated and tangled footnote to an American war that was immensely successful.
This time, the enemy does not want to go home, preferring to embrace its foe.
By war's end, almost 110,000 enemy soldiers were taken to two camps in Saudi Arabia. The vast majority of them had been captured by United Nations coalition forces. They eventually were repatriated to Iraq under the auspices of the International Red Cross after Saddam Hussein issued a general amnesty.
But 4,000 remained in the camps. Most apparently had surrendered after reading leaflets dropped by U.S. planes that guaranteed their safety.
The government of Saudi Arabia has been housing them temporarily in the camps, along with 25,000 Iraqi civilians who fled their homes during the fighting and another 10,000 so-called freedom fighters who fought with the coalition against Hussein.
In early 1992, according to the State Department, it became clear that conditions in Iraq precluded the safe return of many of the 4,000 Iraqi soldiers and other refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concluded that other solutions, such as resettlement in other countries, had to be found.
Along with the United States, Sweden, Denmark and Norway also agreed to accept some of the camp refugees.
"These people are refugees under U.S. law," said a State Department official, who asked not to be identified. "They have been persecuted or have well-founded fears of persecution in their country.
"And the United States has a history of providing humanitarian assistance. I don't think all of these men were pointing rifles and shooting at U.N. coalition soldiers. A lot of them defected long before the ground war even started."
Many of the 4,000 soldiers were forced to join the Iraqi army or face death for refusing to enlist, he said.
"Most of the Iraqi solders were conscripted, and the coalition forces encouraged them to surrender," the State Department official said. "We dropped leaflets all over encouraging them to drop their arms, come over and we would take care of them."
Clinton Administration officials said that many of the Iraqi military prisoners were able to help the coalition forces in many ways during the war, such as providing information about Iraqi troop strength and maneuvers.
According to a State Department memorandum sent to congressional offices skeptical of the resettlement program, "many of those persons had provided valuable services to U.S. forces in the aftermath of the conflict."
The memo also said that since 1992, about 1,000 ex-soldiers and some of their family members have been brought to the United States. In addition to California and Florida, they also are resettling in Texas, Michigan and Illinois. The State Department would not name specific relocation sites.
Before entering the United States, they must be cleared by the FBI. They also must sign a promissory note to reimburse the U.S. government for their transportation costs after they become self-sufficient in America, a transition that government sources said usually takes about a year.
But under the government's Refugee Assistance Program, they are entitled to free help from a wide array of sources.
They can receive cash and free medical assistance if they have no financial resources of their own. They also are eligible for job training and English language schooling.
Many in Congress see the effort as an affront to the U.S. military, noting that returning Gulf War veterans did not receive such assistance. In a letter they plan to send to Clinton after seeking more signatures from members in Congress, those opposing the effort noted that the resettlement of Iraqi POWs ultimately could cost American taxpayers up to $70 million.
They expressed concern that many of the ex-soldiers could pose a safety threat to U.S. citizens despite the FBI clearances, pointing out that with international terrorism already hitting the United States, this "raises serious questions concerning our national security."
"This potentially dangerous and unfair policy can be stopped. We feel it is not wise to continue a policy that could eventually threaten the safety of our citizens and government officials," the letter said.