QAMISHLI, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish Syrians fleeing their nation's bloody uprising are all but prisoners in northern Iraqi refugee camps, though they seek shelter in a region that was created specifically as a safe haven for ethnic Kurds.
Local Kurdish officials in the Iraqi province of Dahuk, which borders Syria, voted Wednesday to open a second refugee camp for the growing number of Syrian Kurds who are arriving every day. But they are not allowed to leave the first, spartan camp at Qamishli, and have been told they must apply for residency before they may live freely in the region widely referred to as, simply, Kurdistan.
It's a twofold irony: Kurds are Syria's largest ethnic minority but long have been considered illegal immigrants there. Moreover, Iraqis used Syria as a safe haven during the worst of the sectarian violence that nearly plunged their nation in civil war just a few years ago.
"We can't move or work freely, and our family can't send us money," Qamishli refugee Radhwan Nadhum al-Ali said in an interview this week. He compared the small camp to "living in a big prison cell."
"I'm mulling whether to go back and face death rather than staying here," al-Ali said.
Iraqi Kurdish soldiers guard the camp at Qamishli, about 60 kilometers (30 miles) from the border. Dahuk provincial immigration director Mohammed Abdullah Hammo said its Syrian Kurdish residents "are not allowed to leave the camps."
"They need security approval and residency permission to be in Kurdistan, just like anyone else," he said Wednesday. He estimated that process would take a month.
The three northern provinces that make up Iraq's self-rule Kurdish region are protected by Kurdish security forces and governed by Kurdish officials. It has for generations given asylum to Kurds — though mostly to Iraqis during Saddam Hussein's regime.
Repeated requests for an explanation for the lockdown on the Syrian Kurds were rejected Wednesday, but in general, Iraq has been hesitant to take a stand on the yearlong protests and fighting that have engulfed Syria.
Iraqi support for the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, would risk angering the Sunni-dominated Arab League and could provoke violent retaliation from Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. But if Baghdad outright condemned Assad, it would draw the ire of Iran, Syria's chief patron and the only other Shiite-dominated nation in the Mideast besides Iraq.
"The only option is negotiation and dialogue," Iraqi vice president Khudhair al-Khuzaie, a Shiite, said in an interview with state-run media Wednesday night. "We do not believe that violence must occur in Syria; we call for a dialogue that gathers both the Syrian regime and the opposition."
The dilemma highlights the plight of Syrian Kurds, who are trying to avoid being used as political pawns in the battle between Assad's regime and opposition forces.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and make up 15 percent of the country's 23 million people. They have long complained of neglect and discrimination, and Assad's government for years argued they are not Syrian citizens at all, but Kurds who fled to the country from Iraq or neighboring Turkey.
Now, however, both the Syrian government and opposition forces are reaching out to Kurds, whose support could tip the balance in their conflict.
So far, most Kurds have sat it out. Last April, Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 Kurds who were registered as aliens before, an early overture to try to interrupt the momentum of the uprising.
Opposition protesters, for their part, last week staged nationwide demonstrations in hopes of rallying Kurds against Assad.
Many in Qamishli said they do not want to pick sides — even if it seems inevitable to them that Assad eventually will be defeated.
"We are waiting for the fall of the regime to go back to our homes," said Abu Jihad, a political activist who would agree to be identified only by his nickname, since he illegally travels between Syria and Iraq regularly. "We believe the regime will fall, sooner or later."
Many of the Syrian Kurds at Qamishli are young adults who fled to avoid being forced to fight for Assad's regime.
Waleed Abdul-Kareem, 25, said he used to drive a tank for the Syrian army and helped seal off towns where security forces would raid homes, arrest citizens and launch attacks against people whom the government indiscriminately branded as terrorists.
"I used to spit on my face whenever I looked at the mirror," said Abdul-Kareem, who was wrapped in a blanket while sitting on the floor in a flimsy house. "I blamed myself for what happened in my town and asked myself how long I would continue with this hideous act?"
It's not known exactly how many Syrian Kurds have sought refuge in Iraq, although camp organizers said at least 300 people are living in Qamishli alone. The U.N. refugee agency this week reported that 30,000 Syrians so far have fled into neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Jakes reported from Baghdad. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP