updated 11/29/2006 7:04:57 PM ET 2006-11-30T00:04:57

The Syrian capital is bustling with Iraqi refugees who fled the increasingly brutal violence in their homeland, and thousands more are arriving every day.

A group of Iraqis gathered around a table in a Damascus coffee shop one evening this week, and one told a bitter joke about their country’s plight — and their own.

What will President Bush ask of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at their summit in Jordan?

“A timetable for Iraqis to withdraw from Iraq,” the joke-teller said, drawing loud laughter.

Well over a million Iraqis have left their homeland since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and the rate is speeding up. The United Nations estimated in early November that 100,000 Iraqis flee the country every month.

After Jordan made entry more difficult this year, Syria became the top destination for Iraqis, with some 2,000 entering daily, according to the U.N. count. Syrian officials estimate some 700,000 Iraqis have arrived since 2003, far more than in any other country in the region.

In Damascus, many Iraqis live a precarious existence, often without steady incomes. Many say they left Iraq after being threatened with abduction by criminal gangs or sectarian militias.

“We are living like homeless people. How long can we survive after we spent all the money we had?” asked Lutfi Kairallah, a civil engineer who was among the men in the coffee shop. He said he left Iraq with his family after a militia ordered him to go or be killed.

'Nothing, and no one can end our nightmare'
Raad Hamadan, a businessman at the coffee shop, was abducted by a gang and freed after his family paid a $50,000 ransom. He and his family then fled Iraq.

“Nothing, and no one can end our nightmare. Only God can. Not Bush, not al-Maliki, not any one of those Arab rulers,” he said.

Another refugee, Walid al-Khayat, said his bus was stopped en route to the Syrian border by Sunni insurgents who robbed him and other passengers. “A million thanks to God, they didn’t kill me,” he said. “But they machine-gunned the passenger next to me just because his name was Abdel Hassan” — a Shiite name.

In Syria, Iraqis can receive free health care and schooling. Still, many Iraqis complain they feel unwelcome. For example, landlords increase rent regularly and threaten to evict those who cannot pay.

Wealthy Iraqis can open businesses, helping to boost Syria’s economy. But Iraqi professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers are not allowed to work.

“We can’t make any plans for ourselves and our children, because tomorrow is just a mystery for us,” said Noor Ziyad, a former teacher in Baghdad.

Syria does not require entry visas from Arabs, but those who wish to stay longer than six months must leave the country and return. Since other countries impose strict visa regulations on Iraqis, the refugees either have to stay illegally in Syria, facing huge penalties, or risk their lives by going back to Iraq.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said this month that Jordan — where some 500,000 Iraqis have fled — has tightened its rules, refusing to renew visas and turning Iraqis away at the border. Heavy fines are imposed on those caught staying longer than allowed by their visas, and those who cannot pay are sometimes forced to return to Iraq, the report said.

In early November, the U.N. said 1.8 million Iraqis were living in other Arab countries. The figure included those living outside Iraq before the 2003 invasion and did not say how many had fled since then.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria said it has noticed a significant increase in the number of Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Egypt, another major destination.

“It is a huge crisis of displacement,” said Laurens Jolles of the UNHCR office in Damascus. “It is unimaginable situation that we are trying to deal with.”

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