DURING the past four years, the United States has led international efforts to resettle tens of thousands of Iraqi army defectors, prisoners of war, and families fleeing the carnage of the Gulf war and Saddam Hussein's subsequent crackdown on rebellious Iraqi Shiites.
Now, senior US officials say that a good idea has gone bad. According to top diplomats and officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the US has admitted Iraqis whose claims for refugee status are questionable. Some are committing what one US ambassador describes as ''grave criminal offenses'' once they reach the US.
''Something is very wrong with the Iraqi refugee-resettlement program,'' US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Raymond Mabus Jr., wrote in a confidential memo to the State Department. ''The US is taking cases other countries will not even consider, refugees who have less of a chance of becoming self-sufficient and who may be more prone to problems such as spouse- and child-abuse.'' (Full text of cable, Page 18.)
On Tuesday the State Department dispatched its inspector general to Saudi Arabia, where an investigation of the resettlement program is now under way.
Department officials confirm that the future of the program is now being debated at the highest levels of the US government.
The US embassy in Riyadh fired off its cable on the problem to Washington in February after it received a computer message from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) citing the need to begin a ''cultural orientation'' program to head off further cases of criminal activity by Iraqis resettled in the US.
Costs 'ridiculously' high
Using unusually explicit language, Ambassador Mabus called the ''cultural orientation'' of Iraqis in the Saudi camp -- a program customarily used to acquaint designated refugees with American values, mores, and taboos -- ''a nightmarishly bad idea which should be scuttled now.'' The cost ''is ridiculously high,'' he said.
''I do not see how a 'cultural orientation' can modify criminal behavior.... Pedophilia, rape, etc., are not cultural or orientations -- they are violent criminal acts,'' Mabus added.
In Washington, a State Department official confirms that the Department is aware of sex offenses committed by Iraqis resettled in the US.
Mabus's cable has ''set off all kinds of flares,'' says a senior official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which since January 1994 has voiced ''some real concerns about the quality of cases coming before us.''
Nearly 2 million Iraqis left their country -- most to Saudi Arabia and Iran -- during the 1991 Gulf war and the Shiite insurrection in southern Iraq that followed two months later. The vast majority returned, but 32,000 settled in two Saudi Arabian camps, one for refugees, the other for prisoners of war (POWs).
Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, the US has led the effort to resettle the Saudi-based refugees. Between 6,000 and 7,000 -- over half the total number so far resettled -- have come to the US.
Twenty-five hundred more have voluntarily repatriated to Iraq; the balance have gone to 32 countries. The US's Gulf war coalition partners ''have taken a minute number of refugees,'' says Mabus, including 53 to Britain, two to Germany, and none to France.
The US, says a Saudi official, has taken many of the most qualified refugees. ''They took all of the doctors, the lawyers, and the engineers.''
Saudi Arabia -- which has never taken in refugees -- insists that the US and its coalition partners have an obligation to resettle the remaining 17,000 Iraqis in the Rafha camp, a sprawling, $100 million concrete city of houses, stores, and schools 50 miles from the Iraqi border.
''We have periodic flights to Mecca; we take them on shopping sprees. If they have skills and want to open a shop, we give them a shop and a market in which to sell their products,'' says the Saudi official.
But there are limits to the kingdom's largess and patience with the refugee community. ''We'll give them tickets if they want to leave,'' says the Saudi official.
In fact, the number of Iraqis being resettled each month is diminishing. The reason why, say US and Saudi officials, is that those who remain are less qualified in professional and other terms: They have no family ties in potential host countries; many are suspected of criminal behavior in the camps; and resettlement budgets among receiving nations are shrinking.
According to international refugee law, an applicant for refugee status must have a credible fear of persecution because of political opinions or other reasons. Among the 13,000 who have been resettled are opponents of Saddam Hussein.
But many of the remaining refugees are having a harder time making a credible claim that they will face persecution if they are repatriated to Iraq.
Routinely, says one INS official, many have come to resettlement interviews with fabricated stories based on the experiences of others who have gone through the process before.
''It is uncanny how, at this late date, applicants recall exact dates [about their roles in uprisings, army desertions, and opposition movements], whereas years ago we couldn't get any particulars,'' says the INS official. He is referring to a February communique written by an INS colleague who has interviewed candidates for resettlement from the Rafha camp.
Many claim that they were sent to the front lines by Saddam as sacrificial lambs. Others, he says, ''claim that they carried an anti-Saddam poster and that Iraqi security agents took pictures of them doing it. We hear that story a lot.''
Meanwhile, despite all the paperwork and time devoted to screening applicants, criminal or deviant behavior can be easily concealed. According to INS and Saudi officials, there has been trouble in the Rafha camp, especially after the Artiwiyah POW camp was closed three years ago and its inmates were transferred to Rafha.
''The INS is not advised by any source when an applicant has been detained by the Saudi authorities'' for committing a crime, says the INS official. And in his cable, Mabus charged that on at least two occasions, the Joint Voluntary Agency -- a private group contracted by the State Department to process refugees -- ''withheld derogatory information from the embassy about applicants and resettled refugees that could have barred these individuals' entry to the US.''
''We are getting worse and worse candidates,'' confirms a senior American diplomat.
The INS official says the US should consider sending more Iraqis back to their country, though he concedes that their return must be voluntary.
''We've not given up on eventual repatriation for Iraqis, but right now, given the security situation in Iraq, that is a dream deferred,'' says Barbara Francis, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which conducts preliminary interviews of those seeking resettlement. ''When they can go home in safety and dignity, that's when we encourage repatriation.''
Program nears end
Whatever the merits of repatriation, some US officials are now convinced that the resettlement program has outlived its usefulness.
''While cases can be screened to select better applicants, there is no question that the pool of Iraqis who truly meet US selection criteria is finite and we will be reaching the end soon, probably by the end of [fiscal year] '96,'' writes Mabus. ''If that is the case, our humanitarian motive has essentially been addressed.''
At a time when there are so many refugees worldwide and US resources are stretched so thin, it's reasonable to ask whether the US should be putting its money and time into Iraqi refugees, the INS official says.
According to Mabus, the operating budget of the JVA has grown from $750,000 in 1992 to more than $1.2 million during the current fiscal year. In addition, the US covers the costs of cultural reorientation, transporting refugees to the US, and domestic resettlement. ''We hear so much these days in the government about 'doing more with less.' The JVA operation is a case of 'doing the same with more''' because its budget has risen faster than its caseload, says Mabus.
The prospect of ending the resettlement program has been raised with the Saudi government, the diplomat says.
''It wouldn't make them happy, but it would not have a major impact on our relations,'' he says. ''Other countries would and could take up the slack.''
Responds the Saudi official: ''Without American leadership nobody is going to do anything, and we'll be stuck with 17,000 refugees. It would be a disaster.''