updated 6/20/2008 11:25:53 AM ET 2008-06-20T15:25:53

A senior American diplomat will make a rare visit to Syria next week in a bid to speed up the processing of Iraqi refugees for admission to the United States, the State Department said Thursday.

Ambassador James Foley, the department’s coordinator for Iraqi refugees, will travel to Syria on June 23-26 as part of a four-nation Mideast tour to boost the numbers of Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. to meet the Bush administration’s goal of accepting 12,000 by the end of September.

“He will assess the needs of Iraqi refugees in these countries and look at ways to enhance programs that provide assistance to refugees and help resettle the most vulnerable in third countries,” said Kurtis Cooper, a department spokesman.

Foley also will visit Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, but the Syria stop will be the highlight because it is home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees and because of strong U.S. objections to Syrian policies in Lebanon and its support for anti-Israel groups.

The United States does not currently have an ambassador in Syria and trips there by senior U.S. officials are unusual. Foley’s visit to Damascus will be his second as the Iraq refugee coordinator. Last year, he went to Syria and won approval for a small number of U.S. immigration agents to go there to interview Iraqi refugees.

Cooper said the trip did not imply any change in U.S. policy toward Syria, which Washington accuses of backing the militant Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and pursuing anti-Israel positions despite nascent Turkish-brokered indirect talks between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Jewish state.

“Ambassador Foley will only be engaging on the issue of the Iraqi refugee population, just as he did during his previous visit to Syria,” he said. “He will meet with refugees and officials there as he did in his previous visit and again review the programs available to Iraqi refugees there.”

Meeting critical to refugee pledge
Increasing the number of Iraqi refugee admissions from Syria will be critical to meeting the administration’s pledge to accept 12,000 Iraqi refugees in the current budget year that began on Oct. 1, 2007 and ends on Sept. 30.

Syria is home to more than 1 million Iraqi refugees and has the largest pool of applicants for admission to the United States but processing there has lagged due to Syrian restrictions on the number of U.S. interviewers it will allow.

Since the start of the budget year, the United States has admitted 4,742 Iraqi refugees, meaning it must allow in another 7,258 in the next four months.

Foley will be in Turkey and Jordan over the weekend before moving on to Syria and then to Lebanon. He will then travel to Geneva to meet with officials from the U.N. refugee agency before returning to Washington.

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