The US envoy to Iraq has warned that nearly 10,000 Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement to the US may have to wait two years, US media have reported.
Crocker expects delays were in processing refugees to grow
Ryan Crocker said the admission of refugees was bogged down by "major bottlenecks" resulting from security reviews, in a memo sent two weeks ago.
The head of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has disputed several of the ambassador's claims.
The US has admitted 1,521 Iraqis refugees since the invasion in 2003.
The number represents only a fraction of the thousands of people given refuge by countries neighbouring Iraq.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, recently said more than two million Iraqis had fled abroad since the invasion. Some 60,000 people are leaving their homes every month.
In an unclassified State Department memo titled "Iraqi Refugee Processing: Can We Speed It Up?", Mr Crocker said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had only a handful of officers in Jordan to conduct security reviews of Iraqi refugees, the Washington Post reported.
He said such bureaucratic bottlenecks meant applicants were forced to wait eight to 10 months after being referred to US authorities by the UNHCR.
WHERE IRAQIS HAVE FLED TO
Gulf states: 200,000
Internally displaced: 2,000,000
"Resettlement takes too long," he wrote, according to the Post.
On the basis that each DHS case officer can interview only four refugees a day on average, Mr Crocker estimated it would take the team in Jordan almost two years to complete interviews on the 10,000 refugees referred by the UN.
The ambassador warned that delays were "likely to grow considerably" as more Iraqis flee.
Mr Crocker suggested "real alternatives", including fast-tracking security checks, doubling the number of officers in Jordan, pushing the Syrian government to issue visas to DHS officials, and arranging interviews by video link from Washington.
"Refugees who have fled Iraq continue to be a vulnerable population while living in Jordan and Syria," he said. "The basis for... resettlement [in the US] is the deteriorating protection environment in these countries."
Processing time 'cut'
But the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) dismissed Mr Crocker's claims the next day, saying they did "not reflect an accurate picture of the DHS's commitment or performance to date", the Post reported.
Emilio Gonzalez instead blamed the delays on the State Department and another agency, the Overseas Processing Entities (OPE), which handles initial screenings, medical examinations and sponsorships.
"It is the OPE's capacity to pre-screen the Iraqi cases... that has been driving the pace of the Iraqi program," Mr Gonzalez wrote, according to the Post.
"I can assure you categorically that USCIS has sent refugee officers to conduct every interview requested."
Mr Gonzalez said DHS officers had cut processing time for cases from six to four months, not the 10 months stated by Mr Crocker.
Another DHS official, Paul Rosenzweig, said it had ramped up its operations quickly and expected to be able to process 12,000 Iraqi refugees next year.