Staying to Help in Iraq By Angelina Jolie

Staying to Help in Iraq
We have finally reached a point where humanitarian assistance,
from us and others, can have an impact.

By Angelina Jolie
Thursday, February 28, 2008; 1:15 PM

The request is familiar to American ears: "Bring them home."

But in Iraq, where I've just met with American and Iraqi leaders,
the phrase carries a different meaning. It does not refer to the
departure of U.S. troops, but to the return of the millions of
innocent Iraqis who have been driven out of their homes and, in
many cases, out of the country.

In the six months since my previous visit to Iraq with the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this humanitarian crisis
has not improved. However, during the last week, the United
States, UNHCR and the Iraqi government have begun to work
together in new and important ways.

We still don't know exactly how many Iraqis have fled their
homes, where they've all gone, or how they're managing to
survive. Here is what we do know: More than 2 million people are
refugees inside their own country -- without homes, jobs and, to
a terrible degree, without medicine, food or clean water. Ethnic
cleansing and other acts of unspeakable violence have driven them
into a vast and very dangerous no-man's land. Many of the
survivors huddle in mosques, in abandoned buildings with no
electricity, in tents or in one-room huts made of straw and mud.
Fifty-eight percent of these internally displaced people are
younger than 12 years old.

An additional 2.5 million Iraqis have sought refuge outside Iraq,
mainly in Syria and Jordan. But those host countries have reached
their limits. Overwhelmed by the refugees they already have,
these countries have essentially closed their borders until the
international community provides support.

I'm not a security expert, but it doesn't take one to see that
Syria and Jordan are carrying an unsustainable burden. They have
been excellent hosts, but we can't expect them to care for
millions of poor Iraqis indefinitely and without assistance from
the U.S. or others. One-sixth of Jordan's population today is
Iraqi refugees. The large burden is already causing tension

The Iraqi families I've met on my trips to the region are proud
and resilient. They don't want anything from us other than the
chance to return to their homes -- or, where those homes have
been bombed to the ground or occupied by squatters, to build new
ones and get back to their lives. One thing is certain: It will
be quite a while before Iraq is ready to absorb more than 4
million refugees and displaced people. But it is not too early to
start working on solutions. And last week, there were signs of

In Baghdad, I spoke with Army Gen. David Petraeus about UNHCR's
need for security information and protection for its staff as
they re-enter Iraq, and I am pleased that he has offered that
support. General Petraeus also told me he would support new
efforts to address the humanitarian crisis "to the maximum extent
possible" -- which leaves me hopeful that more progress can be

UNHCR is certainly committed to that. Last week while in Iraq,
High Commissioner António Guterres pledged to increase UNHCR's
presence there and to work closely with the Iraqi government,
both in assessing the conditions required for return and in
providing humanitarian relief.

During my trip I also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki, who has announced the creation of a new committee to
oversee issues related to internally displaced people, and a
pledge of $40 million to support the effort.

My visit left me even more deeply convinced that we not only have
a moral obligation to help displaced Iraqi families, but also a
serious, long-term, national security interest in ending this

Today's humanitarian crisis in Iraq -- and the potential
consequences for our national security -- are great. Can the
United States afford to gamble that 4 million or more poor and
displaced people, in the heart of Middle East, won't explode in
violent desperation, sending the whole region into further

What we cannot afford, in my view, is to squander the progress
that has been made. In fact, we should step up our financial and
material assistance. UNHCR has appealed for $261 million this
year to provide for refugees and internally displaced persons.
That is not a small amount of money -- but it is less than the
U.S. spends each day to fight the war in Iraq. I would like to
call on each of the presidential candidates and congressional
leaders to announce a comprehensive refugee plan with a specific
timeline and budget as part of their Iraq strategy.

As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only
state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental
organizations seem to feel they have the right set of
circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I
asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible,
they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They
have lost many friends and want to be a part of the humanitarian
progress they now feel is possible.

It seems to me that now is the moment to address the humanitarian
side of this situation. Without the right support, we could miss
an opportunity to do some of the good we always stated we
intended to do.

Angelina Jolie, an actor, is a UNHCR goodwill ambassador.