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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 March, 2003, 10:39 GMT
Iraqis in Syria watch war
By Kim Ghattas
BBC correspondent in Sayyedah Zaynab, Syria

Since the US-led war against Iraq started four days ago, the refugee influx that aid agencies were expecting has not materialised.

Refugee camp preparations
Syrians prepare a refugee camp

But if the conflict drags on, Iraqi refugees could pour into neighbouring countries. Camps have been set up on Iraq's borders with Iran, Jordan and Syria.

Until two days before the war started, many Iraqis did make it into Syria, while Jordan had already shut its borders, except for Iraqis with an onward destination.

Starting on Tuesday, they were turned back on the Syrian border as well. Syrian officials said there was no reason to let in refugees as there was no humanitarian crisis. Since then, Syria has reopened its border, but the roads out of Iraq are too unsafe for the moment.

Place of refuge

Iraqis, mostly Shiites, have been taking refuge in Syria for years already and many congregate in the town of Sayyedah Zaynab, just outside Damascus.

The town is named after a shrine to the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammed and is a popular Shiite pilgrimage site. Rent has skyrocketed in the town over the past few weeks as more and more Iraqis arrived.

Many used the excuse of religious holidays to leave the country and not go back. Some stayed with relatives and friends who have been in Syria for a while.

Most Iraqis didn't want to give their name for fear of repercussions on their families back home. But they spoke more freely than Iraqis at home.

Too expensive to leave

At a small cafe in the town, one young man who has been in Syria for a year said his family could not afford the trip out of Iraq.

"If the outcome of this war is good for the Iraqi people, then why not, let there be a war", he said.

"My family in Baghdad is very worried, they're afraid of the government, not of the Americans, Iraqis are used to bombs, but they worry about what Saddam Hussein is going to do, they're worried they'll be used as human shields", he added.

Syria and Iraq were on bad terms for decades until there was a thaw in their relations a few years ago. Iraq has since provided Syria with cheap oil, outside the UN oil for food program.

But Damascus remains the home of many Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups. Yousef Fadel says he was forced out of Iraq three years ago because he opposed Saddam Hussein. His father and uncles were executed by the Iraqi regime in the 1980's.

"America is not coming to hurt the Iraqi people, they're coming to save the Iraqi people", said Fadel.

"I support the American effort to rid the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein. When he is gone I will go back to Iraq. But then the US has to be an observer, Iraq has to be ruled by an Iraqi not an American general", he added.

For many Iraqis in Syria, the war may have started but the countdown is still on, it's a countdown to the day they can return home.

They could soon be joined in their waiting by many more Iraqi refugees. But other Iraqis were trying to make their way back home.

Kathem Mansour, was loading his suitcases in a taxi, about to take the drive from Syria to Baghdad.

"I have to go back, my family is there, I am worried for them", said Mansour who was on a business trip in Italy. "We have to be in Iraq to fight against the Americans, they want to invade our country, we cannot let them."


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