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The Calm Before the Storm

Iraqis are packing up and heading for safety as the United States and Britain prepare to invade. Increasingly fearful of a chemical attack from Baghdad, Iraq's Kurds are also on the move.

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Iraqi refugees face an uncertain future.

So far, there has been no repeat of the images from the first Gulf War, when an estimated 1.8 million Iraqis fled their homes in search of sanctuary. But aid agencies are preparing for a similar scenario once military action gets underway.

The relative few who have so far fled have mostly made their way for Syria. Although Iraq shares borders with no less than six countries, only two of them -- Jordan and Syria -- permit other Arabs to enter without a visa. Though Jordan has said it will close its border, it has agreed to house some Iraqis in two camps that have been erected close to its border. Syria, which is more welcoming of its neighbors, is currently attracting an estimated 250 to 300 people each day to its capital city, Damascus. But, for the most part, the refugees so far have been foreigners or well-healed Iraqis.

Many of the "early arrivals" are not keen to admit they have fled in the face of the advancing war, instead maintaining that they are merely in Syria visiting family or friends. But whatever they say, the volume of their luggage and supplies often tells a different story.

Readying aid

Western diplomats say Syria, which is vehemently opposed to any U.S.-led military action against Iraq, long held out belief that war could be avoided and limited its preparations for any exodus of refugees. In a bid to make up for lost time, aid groups are now bringing in extra field staff to prepare for refugees heading across Syria's 600-kilometer border with Iraq once the fighting has actually begun.

Estimates on the number of refugees likely to flee Iraq vary, but agencies across the region are gearing up for the worst. Aid agencies in Syria are working together to coordinate relief efforts and are centering their efforts on a camp in the northeast of the country. With a capacity for 20,000 people, the camp is ready to receive refugees who will be bussed in from whichever border point they cross.

UN appeal

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has appealed to Iraq's neighbors to keep their borders open in the event of a conflict. Saudi Arabia has said it is prepared to take in as many as 100,000 refugees, which it will halt at the border.

If past experience is anything to go by, once military action actually begins, so too will the exodus, and Syria will not be the only destination for the hundreds of thousands of refugees. The International Red Cross and the Red Crescent are extending their capacity to be able to deal with as many as 250,000 people in camps near Iraq's border with Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. But until such time as the refugees begin to move, all the aid workers can do is lay the foundations for refugee camps and begin the game of watching and waiting.

NEXT PAGE: Kurds begin fleeing central Iraq

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