DAMASCUS, Syria – Hundreds of grim-faced Iraqis lined up under sunny skies Sunday outside a United Nations office in Damascus seeking refuge or any aid they could get.
Some were recent arrivals -- Iraqis who fled the war. Many others have lived in Syria for several years and were seizing the opportunity to apply for asylum.
Ajmal al-Khybari, an official for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus, said about 650 Iraqis came to the agency Sunday. He said the numbers have increased dramatically since the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq began 10 days earlier.
"Most of them are people who are requesting protection and they have left their country because of the war situation in Iraq," he told Associated Press Television News.
The UNHCR has been operating in this country since the 1991 Gulf War, when about 8,000 Iraqi refugees fled to Syria, al-Khybari said.
"Some of them were able to return to their country and some of them were resettled in third countries," he said.
He said 1,100 Iraqis have approached the agency since March 20.
The Syrian government, in cooperation with U.N. agencies, has set up three camps to receive Iraqi refugees, but they remain empty. Iraqis who came to Syria are either staying with family and friends or renting homes.
On Sunday, throngs of Iraqis waited nervously outside the three-story UNHCR building in downtown Damascus.
A 35-year-old woman from Baghdad said she came with her husband and three children a week ago. They are staying with her sister in Damascus.
"We couldn't stay in Iraq in this situation. Our youngest daughter is 5 months old and has asthma. What if they use chemical weapons in the war?" she said.
She, like most others, refused to give her name, fearing Iraqi informants might find them.
Another Iraqi said he had deserted the Iraqi army and fled to Syria "some time ago," and was now hoping for asylum.
Earlier this month, the UNHCR said more than 51,000 Iraqis claimed asylum around the world last year, making them by far the largest group seeking asylum in industrialized countries.