Soon in September, most Iraq-related news is certain to center around a progress report from Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. While the Bush administration and Congress will, and should, vigorously debate U.S. military involvement in Iraq, they cannot afford to ignore a much quieter matter roiling below the war's surface: refugees.

Soon in September, most Iraq-related news is certain to center around a progress report from Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. While the Bush administration and Congress will, and should, vigorously debate U.S. military involvement in Iraq, they cannot afford to ignore a much quieter matter roiling below the war's surface.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that Iraqis are fleeing their homes - and their homeland - at an increasing pace, about 60,000 people each month. Already, it is estimated that 4.2 million Iraqis have bailed out, with half seeking refuge in nearby countries and half trying to start new lives in less violent areas of Iraq. That's one-sixth of the population.

To put it another way, imagine if the entire city of Chicago and 1 million residents from the collar counties suddenly descended on downstate Illinois. Schools, human service agencies and hospitals would be overwhelmed. Those fleeing would need places to eat, sleep and work.

Iraq's neighbors are feeling that crunch now, especially Syria and Jordan. The former, which has taken in over 1 million refugees, is demanding assistance. The latter only recently decided to let the children of some 750,000 refugees into its schools. In both nations, humanitarian groups report that desperate Iraqis, many of whom lack official papers, are concentrating in poor, urban areas. 'There is an increasing number of people who are begging in the streets, who are homeless, who are working illegally,' said an UNHCR spokesperson.

The United States, meanwhile, accepted less than 200 refugees last year. No, that's not a typo - the nation whose invasion helped set into motion this exodus has absorbed only a fraction of the resulting burden, despite an earlier pledge from the State Department to accept 7,000 Iraqis. Even that offer is low, considering that last year the U.S. agreed to accept 20,000 refugees from Africa, 15,000 from East Asia and 15,000 from Europe and the Baltics.

Not to diminish any ongoing strife in those parts of the world, but Iraq's emerging diaspora - Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Christians and Yadizis are among those trying to escape persecution - should be higher on our radar. The consequences of a cold shoulder could impair the Bush administration's hopes for Iraq and the Middle East.

First, those Iraqis who can't successfully integrate in other nations risk becoming part of a permanent, disenfranchised group without a homeland - the new Palestinians. Such social and economic conditions are breeding grounds for crime, revolt, even terrorism. The State Department should free up more dollars for U.N. aid programs assisting Iraqis in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

Second, Iraqis who remain will be much less willing to help American troops if America won't help them. As the Washington Post recently reported, at least 100,000 Iraqis, especially translators and informants, face retaliation from insurgents. These allies should be fast-tracked for the special U.S. visas they desperately want.

We appreciate that there's a cost, but it's one this nation brought upon itself. And there's one other thing: Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who recently visited Iraq, said the U.S. bears a 'moral obligation' to do more about this growing refugee crisis. No matter how Americans feel about the war itself, it would be a mistake to ignore the plight of 4.2 million Iraqis who want what we all want - a safe place to raise a family.

Peoria Journal Star