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Iran braces for Iraqi refugees, appeals for help

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By Parinoosh Arami

TEHRAN, March 20 (Reuters) - Iran said on Thursday it was bracing itself for up to 1.2 million refugees from the Iraq war and complained international help was slow in coming.

Ahmad Hosseini, deputy interior minister for refugee affairs, told Reuters no Iraqis had yet crossed into Iran. But he warned that refugee flows were likely to swell once Washington unleashes a fully-fledged military campaign.

So far there have been limited strikes around Baghdad. "If the war expands further and new Iraqi cities come under attack, then there will be more movement towards Iran," Hosseini said in a telephone interview.

"In that case we predict that between 500,000 to 1.2 million Iraqis refugees will head for Iran's borders because more than 70 percent of the Iraqi population is living in areas which are 100 to 150 km from Iran," he said.

Hosseini said Iran had closed its borders with Iraq and would only allow in those whose lives were considered to be in danger.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Thursday half of a forecast 600,000 refugees could head for Iran.

More than one million Iraqis, mostly Kurds from the north of the country, poured into Iran in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war.

And Iran, which still hosts around 200,000 Iraqis from that conflict and more than two million Afghans who fled war in its eastern neighbour, has expressed growing irritation at having to foot the bill for another refugee influx.

FIRST WAVE OF 200,000 EXPECTED

"The Iranian people are not ready to pay the expenses for a war that the United States has started. If we fail to receive international aid, we are unable to help Iraqi refugees," Hosseini said.

"We need at least $20 million emergency aid to handle the first wave of refugees, which is expected to number some 200,000," he said.

UNHCR's chief of mission in Iran, Philippe Lavanchy, echoed Hosseini's concern over funds. He said UNHCR had so far only received $19.5 million from a total $60 million it has appealed for to handle the refugee crisis in Iraq's neighbours.

"Our preparations for a possible influx of refugees have been severely hampered by lack of funding by donors who had been hoping that war in Iraq could be avoided," Lavanchy said in a statement.

"But now that it is upon us, we have to move quickly," he said.

From a total of 10 sites identified along Iran's western frontier for possible refugee camps, work is now concentrating on four in southwestern Iran which could handle an initial wave of 60,000 people.

UNHCR said on Thursday it had given $1 million to Iranian authorities for preparatory work at the four sites including the clearance of land mines, construction of access roads and building of water and sanitation facilities.

Hosseini said that initial concern had focused on refugee flows from northern Iraq, where Kurds fearful of an Iraqi chemical weapon attack have abandoned towns and fled to the hills.

"Now, we are more concerned about movement from the Iraqi cities of Basra and Baghdad," he said.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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