The US State Department confirmed Tuesday that as many as 1,350 Iraqi Palestinians - once well-treated guests of Saddam Hussein and now estranged from Iraqi society - will be resettled in the US, mostly in southern California, starting this fall, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
It will be the largest-ever resettlement of Palestinian refugees into the US - and welcome news to the Palestinians who fled to Iraq after 1948, but who have had a tough time since Hussein was ousted in 2003. Targeted by Iraqi Shi'ites, the Palestinians, mostly Sunni Muslims, have spent recent years in one of the region's roughest refugee camps, Al Waleed, near Iraq's border with Syria in the west.
"Really for the first time, the United States is recognizing a Palestinian refugee population that could be admitted to the US as part of a resettlement program," Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch in Washington told CSM.
Considering that the US in the past was reluctant to resettle Palestinians - only seven were accepted in 2007 and only nine in 2008 - the effort could become a point of contention between Israel and the US.
For many in the State Department and international community, the resettlement is part of a moral imperative the US has to clean up the refugee crisis created by invading Iraq. The US has already stepped up resettlement of Iraqis, some whom have struggled to adjust to life in America.
The resettlement of Iraqi Palestinians is "an important gesture for the United States to demonstrate that we're not heartless," Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at New York University told the publication.
But some critics say the State Department is sloughing off its problems onto American cities, especially since in this case the Palestinians were sympathizers of the Iraqi tyrant.
"This is politically a real hot potato," said Mark Krikorian, director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, adding, "America has become a dumping ground for the State Department's problems - they're tossing their problems over their head into Harrisburg, Pa., or Omaha, Neb."
Palestinian refugees came to Iraq in successive waves over several decades, first in 1948, then in 1967, and in 1991. They were treated well under Hussein but were also used to attack Israeli policies, and their presence was resented by many locals.
After Hussein was removed from power in 2003, many of these Palestinians were driven out of their homes and now live "at the mercy of the weather" in rough camps along the Syrian and Jordanian border, said Mr. Ben-Meir. The number of Palestinians in Iraq has fallen from around 34,000 to an estimated 15,000, with about 2,773 living in camps, according to the State Department.
The US, which takes in about 80,000 refugees annually, hopes to bring 17,000 Iraqi refugees this year.
While the US generally doesn't accept Palestinians, Todd Pierce, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said that the Iraqi population of Palestinians falls under a different category from those in Gaza and the West Bank. Each applicant will be carefully scrutinized for terrorist ties, he added.
The US reluctance to accept Palestinians is because it "doesn't want the refugee program to become an issue in its relationship with Israel," said a diplomat in the region on condition of remaining anonymous. But these Palestinians, he said, would be processed as refugees from Iraq.
Mr. Krikorian said the US should be the last refuge for those fleeing persecution. Only Jordan of all the Arab countries routinely grants citizenship to Palestinian refugees, he noted. More recently, said Mr. Frelick, Jordan has also shut its borders to Palestinians coming from Iraq.
Frelick, who has visited a camp on the Jordanian border, said the Iraqi Palestinians were "apolitical," and "basically desperate, scared, miserable, and ready to just get out of Iraq."