Saturday, May 20, 2006

Iraqis Keep Flooding into Syria

Christine Spolar of the Chicago Tribune explains the sad story of Iraqis heading to Syria, which has shown extraordinary hospitality to Iraqis. Unlike Jordan, Syria offers free education and what medical services it can.

Three-month visas are routinely issued to Iraqis, and so are multiple extensions. Iraqis cannot receive work permits, but they can receive free health care and schooling.

"It's a shifting population--people come and people go--but it's amazing that Syria has been able to absorb them all," said a Western diplomat who has watched the war.

Even Human Rights Watch, which criticizes Syria's treatment of reform advocates, has praised the country's openness. In recent weeks in particular, Syria has shown empathy for Palestinian refugees as well.

"Middle East governments should follow Syria's example in accepting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Iraq," the organization said in a statement.

Syria is run by an autocratic regime, like many Arab countries, but it offers comforts to those in search of a peaceful way station. Battling economic woes, Syria still supports a broad middle class. Restaurants and cafes in Damascus are full. Streets are lively. Mosques and churches are open to the newcomers. And Syrians generally listen sympathetically to those in need from Iraq.

For the war-weary, the road to Damascus is cheap. One-way flights to Damascus cost $240, about half the price of a flight to Amman, Jordan. Taxi rides cost $30; bus trips are $15. But getting to Damascus by land has become another battle in the war. The main highway is a crapshoot, drivers said.

Robbers are a constant problem, and so are shootings on the highway. Fathy said he hits the gas pedal on the Iraqi highway and stops for no one.

"Everyday you hear stories. Lots of people are kidnapped on that road. Most people are staying for a little bit and then trying to decide what to do next," Fathy said.

Ahmed Kareem is a 34-year-old engineer who rode a bus this month from his home in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. The bus was stopped about a hour from Baghdad. Three men were forced from the bus and were shot dead, he believes, by Iraqi soldiers.

"I saw it," he said. "We didn't know what was happening or why."

"I wanted Saddam gone, but I thought things were going to be good," Kareem added. "I am so sad. My parents--they're 74 and 64 years old--they're sad. I love my country. My country means so much to me. And it is in so much trouble."

Where does he hope to live?

"I want to move everyone to Cairo," he said.

An emigre's fears

Laith Arawa left Mosul nearly two years ago. He first went to Amman, but he couldn't survive. The government gives nothing to Iraqis, he said, no health care or education. So he made his way to Damascus last year.

"I don't want to go back. The minute I see an American soldier, I feel something bad will happen," the 32-year-old said. "And the Iraqis? They aren't even trained properly." Khamed Suwadi, a doctor who was opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, has been living in Damascus, on and off, for years.

"Two months ago, a friend of mine in Baghdad was kidnapped. They paid a ransom for him, but who knows what can happen," Suwadi said. "You just don't know who is going to kill you there or why."
This story follows Sabrina Tavernise's excellent article in the NYTimes: As death stalks Iraq, middle-class exodus begins

Ken Silverstein in “Fairy Tales
The (lack of) intelligence underpinning Bush's Iraq policy tells of how two CIA station chiefs in Baghdad got sacked for telling the truth. The most recent station chief has written positive reports.
Now, on the subject of Iraq the Bush administration has roughly the same credibility as Baghdad Bob, and for similar reasons: the administration covers its ears when it gets bad news and anyone bold enough to deliver it is sent to face the firing squad. Continued...

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