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Iraqi Refugees Overwhelm Syria

After pushing the Syrian government for more than a year to tighten security on the border, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said during a visit to Damascus last month that the situation had improved. New rules make it harder for young men to enter Iraq through Syria, but the border remains open to those leaving Iraq.

U.S. criticism has shifted to the Iraqis already here, especially the wealthy early arrivals whom the diplomatic community labeled "Mercedes refugees." U.N. officials and Western diplomats say the group, less than 10 percent of the overall Iraqi population here, consists mainly of senior Baath Party officials and other Hussein supporters. With passports and political connections, they come and go with relative ease.

An Iraqi man at a voter registration center, provided by Syria, hung a poster last month in Damascus that urged Iraqis to cast ballots. (Bassem Tellawi -- AP)

But Western diplomats say the Syrian government has an interest in making sure Iraqis are not aiding the insurgency. Peter Ford, the British ambassador to Syria, said the issue is "if anything, a more pressing problem than the threat posed by jihadis," the foot soldiers of the insurgency. Their money and organizational skills, he said, create more violence in Iraq, which drives more Iraqis to Syria.

"They are risking going too far and making matters worse for themselves here," Ford said. "When you import a people, you import their problems."

The Syrian government denies harboring former Hussein supporters, and officials point out that the Iraqi and Syrian governments, ruled by rival Baath parties for decades, were frequently at odds when Hussein was in power. Syria supported Iran against Iraq in their long war in the 1980s, and Iraqi Baathists worked with Islamic militants here around that time to undermine the government.

"The United States is finding it quite difficult right now to establish law and order in Iraq, so the easiest thing to do is to blame foreign intervention," Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah said. "Anyone who knows the relationship between the Iraqi Baath and the Syrian Baath knows that could never happen. Mostly Iraqi Baathists are sentenced here, not protected."

Many Syrians are starting to complain about the effects of the Iraqi arrivals, mostly over the crowded schools and rising rents. The wealthiest Iraqis have been buying up land in the western suburbs of Damascus, building huge homes and pushing up real estate prices 50 percent over the past year. A lawyer who works in government circles said President Bashar Assad will soon sign an order barring Iraqis from purchasing property.

"If they are allowed to continue," said a Syrian used-car dealer looking for property to buy in Damascus, "they will buy up half of Syria."

This ancient city, which had churches before the mosques that outnumber them today, has become a sanctuary for about 15,000 Iraqi Christians. Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean churches, which dispense small amounts of aid and tap a Christian business network to find arriving men jobs, are usually the first stop for Iraqi families.

"They may have been rich," the Rev. Joseph Shabo, a Syrian Orthodox priest, said, adding, "When they arrive, soon they have nothing."

Despite their qualifications, Zaker and his two working-age sons have been unable to find jobs. Samir, 27, arrived this month with a chemistry degree from the University of Mosul. Ghaith, 22, who arrived last year, is midway through a computer sciences degree program. They have knocked on doors and placed ads in newspapers seeking work. No one has responded.

There is nothing to go back to, even if the family wanted. News has arrived that their house has been looted. For now, life is the two-room apartment, which costs $500 a month, and concerns about what happens when the savings run out.

"We're not poor," Samir said. "But when you're spending all you have every day, it gets expensive."

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