Several weeks ago, I wrote about an Iraqi Christian friend who fled his home for neighboring Jordan. He and his family feared for their lives in a civil war atmosphere in which civilians were being pulled out of cars and shot on neighborhood streets.

My friend George is part of an Iraqi refugee crisis that has attracted little attention as Americans debate whether to draw down U.S. troops.

The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees said in November that up to 2,000 Iraqis a day were leaving Iraq for nearby Syria and an additional 1,000 a day for Jordan. U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations estimate more than 1 million Iraqis have fled the country since 2003.

The pace has accelerated as Iraq has sunk into a vicious cycle of sectarian killing. The United Nations refugee agency also estimates that 425,000 Iraqis have fled their homes this year to safer locales inside Iraq. Much of this exodus commenced after the bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in February that set off an orgy of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

In neighborhoods throughout Baghdad, and in mixed cities around Iraq, sectarian militias are driving out members of minorities in their area. Sunnis or Shiites are given a few hours’ notice to leave on pain of death, or are simply murdered. Families that lived next to each other for decades are forced out.

Almost everyone I know in Iraq has relatives who have fled. One couple I knew in Mosul left for Lebanon after getting death threats for having met with Americans. A Baghdad family decamped for Jordan after retrieving their teenager who had been kidnapped for a $50,000 ransom (this criminal practice is rampant in Baghdad.) On the Web site of Refugees International you can read heart-rending testimonies by Iraqis who had to leave or die.

But for Iraqi refugees without financial means, little help is available. Unlike other global refugee crises, in which governments work with aid agencies to help victims, this refugee crisis dares not speak its name.

For political reasons, neither Iraq’s neighbors nor the United States wants to recognize these Iraqis as refugees — or grant them permanent residency status. Small countries such as Jordan and Syria can’t afford to be permanently burdened with hundreds of thousands of newcomers who have few resources.

Washington has other, more political concerns. “For the United States ... to recognize the existence of a million refugees would mean admitting they have failed to establish peace and security in Iraq,” states Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

As the White House struggles to produce a new strategy for “victory” in Iraq, this Iraqi exodus is an inconvenient reminder of Iraq’s unremitting violence.

As a result, the international response to the Iraqi refugee crisis has been dismal, according to Kenneth Bacon, who heads Refugees International. Despite refugee numbers that could approach those displaced in Darfur, aid agencies have few funds to deal with this crisis.

Both Jordan and Syria treat these Iraqis as temporary visitors, with possibility of deportation. Neither country allows them to work, leaving many in economic peril.

“They want to go home,” I was told by Magy Mahrous, director of the International Catholic Migration Commission’s program for Iraqi refugees in Jordan. “But this is an emergency situation. It is a matter of survival.” Meantime, the Iraqi civil war guarantees that many thousands more refugees are on the way.

Refugees International calls this “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.” Unless Washington and the world acknowledge this fact, the problem will become far more desperate. It’s time for the administration to face the problem and mobilize contributions to aid agencies — and Arab countries — that are helping the refugees.

And it’s way past time for the White House to start making contingency plans to rescue thousands of Iraqis — like George — who worked with Americans over the past three years. Their lives are already in danger; if U.S. troops pull back, thousands of them will be killed.

No one wants to talk about the visa issue, either; the U.S. embassy in Baghdad doesn’t even issue them, and America has granted only a tiny number to endangered Iraqis.

But Washington can no longer put off confronting the impact of its failed strategy on Iraqi civilians. Iraqi refugees and our friends inside the country can no longer wait.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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