Iraqi dissidents ponder move to Kurdish refuge: 30,000 Shias hope to leave Saudi camp

MOVES are being made to transport the 30,000 Iraqi refugees held in a camp in Saudi Arabia to Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. The suggestion came from Mohammed Bager Alhakim, leader of the Iraqi opposition in Tehran, who argues that even half the money currently being spent by Saudi Arabia on the refugees would suffice once they were resettled among the Kurds.

The Kurds are thought to welcome the plan, as an attempt to embrace non-Kurdish Iraqis opposed to the Baghdad regime in that part of northern Iraq beyond Saddam Hussein's writ. But there has as yet been no official response from the Saudi authorities, who are known to be increasingly concerned about the costs of feeding and housing so many people apparently indefinitely.

The mood at the Rafha camp can be judged from a report of a recent clash between Saudi guards and Iraqi refugees which was brought to London by three refugees who have been granted asylum in the United Kingdom. In the days that followed the clash, between 600 and 700 people were arrested when the Saudi guards searched the tents for possible ringleaders. Those since released have given accounts of torture, in particular beatings on the soles of the feet, and electric shocks.

Most of the 30,000 Iraqi refugees in Rafha camp are people who took part in the uprising against President Saddam in the spring of 1991 or who fled from the shelling of the cities in the south. Most are Shias, who felt they had been encouraged by the West to rise up, and all expected a rapid overthrow of President Saddam and an early return to their homes. With the war now over for more than two years, President Saddam apparently ever more in control, and the West ever more silent, they are beginning to despair of the future.

Conditions in the camp are psychologically, if not physically, appalling. Food, water and sanitation are adequate. What is lacking is anything for the refugees, many of them highly educated doctors, lawyers, teachers and technicians, to do. Rafha camp stands in the middle of the desert. Barbed wire prevents escape.

The only refugees who have been allowed to leave are those with personal sponsors. Up to March, according to United Nations figures, just over 3,000 had been resettled, 1,582 in Iran, 960 in the United States, 177 in Finland, and 126 in Norway. Forty had been taken in by Britain. Some 3,500 more are awaiting resettlement.

Because the camp is effectively barred to visitors - only the International Committee of the Red Cross is allowed in - very little news about the refugees emerges. The new arrivals in Britain say that conditions are worsening all the time, that the guards - who are Sunni rather than Shia Muslims - not only mistreat the refugees but are known to have raped a number of the women.

There are also rumours of collusion between the Saudi guards and the Iraqi authorities. At the end of 1991, 1,000 refugees were suddenly returned to Iraq, where friends claim they faced certain arrest and execution.

Fears of direct attacks on the camp are growing in the wake of the recent Iraqi shelling of the Saudi border. The refugees are now making it clear that they would rather risk the threat of President Saddam's growing militancy in the Kurdish area than to continue living in isolation, idleness, confinement and random brutality.

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