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Government: US Embassy keeping close tabs on Iraqis

Government: US Embassy keeping close tabs on Iraqis

Asenior government spokesman has said the US Embassy in Phnom Penh has provided

the authorities with a list of names of potential terrorist suspects from Iraq,

for fear they could strike US interests here. That follows the commencement of

the controversial war in Iraq, which began March 19 with the first US-led

bombing of Baghdad.

"The US government and embassy in Phnom Penh have

provided a list of terrorists, those based in Iraq," said General Khieu Sopheak

of the Ministry of Interior (MoI). He added that airport staff had been briefed

to be on high alert for suspicious persons. The names of all arriving Iraqi

nationals were to be reported to the US Embassy.

"We have to scrutinize

the passports and their validity, we have to scrutinize and monitor the

transportation of guns and firearms," he said. "We don't want to make Cambodia

one of the targets."

However the US Embassy would not comment on

intelligence gathering "as a matter of policy" and would not say whether such a

list had been handed over to the government.

"We have met with the most

senior levels of the government to discuss our security concerns as they relate

to military action in Iraq," the embassy spokesperson said, "particularly with

regard to the safety of American citizens and the official American presence in

Cambodia."

Three Iraqi diplomats and eight other Iraqi nationals were

expelled from neighboring Thailand on March 20, the Bangkok Post reported. The

Thai government cited "security reasons" that had surfaced following

intelligence cooperation with the US.

The MoI also expressed concern that

people with links to terrorist organizations could come here to regroup

following the possible fall of the regime in Baghdad. That is despite the lack

of any published evidence linking Iraq with the al-Qaeda terror

network.

"Iraq has been hit by airstrikes, and some of the terrorist

organizations in Iraq are going to find a safe haven," said Sopheak. "Cambodian

law enforcement should be aware. We should be very vigilant, not providing a

safe haven for their terrorist activities."

Those working in migration,

however, are more concerned at the plight of Iraqis fleeing their homeland for

humanitarian reasons. Mohammad Al-Nassery, program officer at the UN's

International Organization for Migration, said all asylum seekers he had

encountered were genuine, although he conceded Cambodia could become a

target.

"Most of [the asylum seekers] are looking for a better future,"

he said. "I don't know how much the terrorist networks are using Cambodia [but

it is] a potential spot for having more pockets."

During the 2001 war in

Afghanistan, 241 Afghans and Pakistanis were discovered on a boat off the

Sihanoukville coast. All were repatriated. In March this year 31 Bangladeshis

were repatriated after they were found to be heading for

Malaysia.

Raymond Alikpala, legal officer at international NGO Jesuit

Service (JS), said the country's lax regulations and reputation for lawlessness

has long enticed those looking to escape persecution at home.

"Cambodia

is attractive because they do not detain immigrants," said Alikpala. "It is also

very easy to get a visa to Cambodia. All you need is a valid, or a valid

looking, passport and $20, and very few questions are asked. The fact is that

the country is so corrupt you can get away with anything."

And with the

Iraqi war destroying homes and displacing families, Alikpala said some may try

to escape by way of Cambodia.

"That is what we fear," he said. "They find

the door being closed to them, but in Cambodia the door is still open. One Iraqi

family went to Jordan, then to Bangkok, and then to Cambodia. They are very

resourceful."

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said to date it

had not noted any increase in asylum-seekers, and speculated that Iraqis would

probably try to reach neighboring countries first. If Iraqis were to come to

Cambodia, said a UNHCR spokesperson, they would be dealt with under the UN

Convention for Refugees.

JS's Alikpala said the main refugee intake was

currently from Vietnam, and the government had had difficulties dealing with

them.

"I don't know whether the Cambodian government could protect asylum

seekers from Iraq," he said, "when it can't even handle refugees from Vietnam."

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