Resettling Iraqi POWs in U.S. Criticized; Lawmakers Urge Clinton to End 'Potentially Dangerous'

Washington Post 08/25/93: William Claiborne

More than 80 members of Congress have asked President Clinton to end what they called the "potentially dangerous and unfair policy" of resettling captured Iraqi soldiers in the United States along with deserving civilian Iraqi refugees.

Nearly 1,000 Iraqi soldiers captured by U.S. forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War have been resettled at public expense in cities across the United States. They are among nearly 3,000 Iraqi refugees -- the majority of them civilians -- who have been resettled in the United States from internment camps in Saudi Arabia.

Another 3,000 Iraqi former POWs and their families are scheduled to be moved here on humanitarian grounds, the complaining House members said. According to the State Department, the former prisoners were conscripted into the Iraqi Army against their will and have now been classified by international agencies as refugees who face persecution by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime if they return home. Many of the former POWs provided valuable services to U.S. forces in the aftermath of the war, administration officials said.

But congressional critics have challenged the notion of charging taxpayers to resettle former enemies, particularly at a time of national budget-cutting. Rep. Clifford B. Stearns (R-Fla.) accused the administration of a "bizarre set of priorities" for going to great length to accommodate combatants who participated in the "rape of Kuwait," while 8.9 million jobless Americans cannot afford the basic necessities of life.

"When we dropped those leaflets on the [Iraqi] Republican Guard, we did not include a plane ticket to Middle America and welfare entitlement benefits. When those guys realized the war was lost, they changed into civilian clothes and surrendered, and now we're rolling out the red carpet," Stearns added in a telephone interview from Ocala, Fla.

A State Department official said yesterday that the resettlement of the former Iraqi soldiers was "only a small part of a worldwide admission program for Iraqi refugees in which a number of countries are participating." The official said that resettled refugees routinely are required to sign a promissory note for their air fare to the United States, which they are expected to repay in installments once they become self-sufficient here.

Nonetheless, a bipartisan group of 75 members of Congress has sent a letter of protest to President Clinton, saying that the estimated resettlement costs of up to $ 70 million would be better spent on veterans' services for the American soldiers against whom the Iraqis fought.

"We find it disturbing that American taxpayers must fund the travel of former Iraqi soldiers (who took up arms against our own soldiers) to the U.S. Ironically, we provide the [POWs] with welfare services while asking our own veterans and service personnel to bear the burdens of deficit reduction," declared the letter, which was initiated by Rep. Donald A. Manzullo (R-Ill.).

Another letter to the president, drafted by Stearns and signed by seven House colleagues from Florida, described as "an anomaly" a policy that makes former enemy soldiers eligible for costly medical care, housing assistance and job placement while social-safety-net programs for Americans are being reduced.

Both groups of representatives also warned that the resettled Iraqis could pose a national security threat.

Stearns said the Office of Refugee Resettlement estimated the average cost to settle one refugee in the United States at up to $ 7,000. But he said this figure does not include "up-front health care that could escalate the cost by thousands of dollars."

Both groups of House members asked Clinton to issue an executive order denying refugee status to additional Iraqi soldiers still in detention in Saudi Arabia, particularly since the Iraqi government continues to defy United Nations restrictions imposed at the end of the war.

Nearly 110,000 Iraqi soldiers who were captured or who surrendered were taken to two camps in Saudi Arabia at the war's end in February 1991. Most of them were repatriated to Iraq after Saddam issued a general amnesty to deserters, but about 13,000 remained in the camps and said they did not want to go home, according to a State Department memorandum to Manzullo's office dated Aug. 12.

The former prisoners were determined by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to have civilian status and to be refugees, according to the State Department memo.

The government of Saudi Arabia has continued to house the prisoners, along with about 25,000 Iraqi civilians who fled their homes during the fighting and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia.

"The ratio of civilians to former POWs, and therefore to our resettlement program, is about two to one. The refugees, both civilian and former military, are from a variety of Iraqi ethnic groups (Shia Moslem, Turkoman and Assyrian) which have long been targets for repression by Iraq," the State Department memo said.