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It Was a Deal Well Worth Doing : Why the Iraqi resettlement program is in U.S. national interests

August 30, 1993

A vigorous psychological warfare campaign directed against Iraqi forces before and during the Persian Gulf conflict, including leaflets promising humane treatment to those who put down their arms, helped prompt the surrender of many of the 110,000 Iraqi soldiers who eventually became prisoners of war. When the fighting ended, most of these men were repatriated. But about 4,000, fearing imprisonment or death if they returned, chose to reject their homeland.

The United States is now in the process of absorbing a thousand or more of these defectors, in some cases along with their families. Others are being relocated in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The U.S. action is in keeping with laws providing for asylum to those who have good reason to fear persecution in their own countries. That has not kept some in Congress from expressing their outrage.

A bipartisan group of about 75 members of Congress wants President Clinton to deny refugee status to the Iraqis. They are upset, they say, that each Iraqi refugee will get between $4,000 and $7,000 in cash assistance payments. Returning Gulf War veterans, they argue, received no such help. The objectors, citing concerns about international terrorism, specifically as it emanates from various Middle Eastern countries, also profess to worry that the Iraqis could pose a national security threat.

Is there a whiff of nativist demagogy in these complaints?

Consider the facts. Most of the Iraqis who surrendered--many without ever firing a shot--were conscripts who demonstrably had little interest in defending Saddam Hussein's conquests. Many, as the State Department notes, provided valuable information to the Western allies before, during and--significantly--"in the aftermath of the conflict." Their helpfulness in this regard may not be at an end. And all, investigation determined, would be in danger if they returned to Iraq.

Funding for the refugee resettlement program has nothing to do with appropriations for veterans benefits; it would make as much sense for congressional objectors to argue that Gulf War vets should get special help from farm subsidy programs. Finally, each Iraqi must be cleared by the FBI before entering the country. Such a check isn't foolproof, but it's much more than most immigrants get.

The armistice that ended the Korean War 40 years ago was long delayed because the United States and its allies refused to forcibly repatriate Chinese and North Korean prisoners. That noble precedent stands. In granting refugee status to a relatively small number of former Iraqi soldiers, the United States is being faithful to its own humane traditions. That is nothing to object to.

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