updated 3/1/2008 5:39:32 PM ET 2008-03-01T22:39:32

The number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States rose slightly for the second month in a row, although the Bush administration still will struggle to meet its target of 12,000 by the end of September.

The State Department said Saturday that 444 Iraqi refugees entered the country in February. That puts total admissions for the current budget year, which began Oct. 1, at 1,876 and leaves the administration seven months to admit 10,124 to reach its goal.

"This is a modest improvement, but still well short of where we expect to be a few months from now," said James Foley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's point man on the issue.

The total was 375 in January and 245 in December. It is far below the monthly average of 1,000 needed for the entire budget year, from October 2007 until Sept. 30.

Increases end three monthly declines
The small increases in January and February ended three straight months of declines. The administration has now admitted 268 more Iraqis this budget year than it did in the entire previous one.

Yet, it must now average 1,446 per month until the end of September if it is to hit the 12,000 mark.

"We think the turning point will come by May," Foley said, noting that there are thousands of refugee interviews scheduled this month and next. But he said the slow pace of processing in Syria, home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees, remains problematic.

"We're still not seeing significant arrivals out of Damascus because of limits on our processing capacity," he said.

Administration under fire
The administration has come under criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers for its poor performance on admitting Iraqi refugees who have fled violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Many critics say, and officials have acknowledged, that the administration has a moral obligation to the refugees.

Despite improved cooperation between the departments of State and Homeland Security in refugee processing, admissions have lagged in part because of restrictions placed on interviewers, particularly in Syria.

Some 2.5 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and about 17,000 of those have been referred to the United States for resettlement by the United Nations.

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