Fri, Nov 23, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Baghdad sponsoring trips for return of Iraqi refugees


With an ebb in the violence in Iraq, the country's embassy in Damascus is starting to organize free trips for Iraqis who want to return home, an Iraqi diplomat said on Wednesday.

Free convoys and even airplane tickets out are part of a new push by Baghdad authorities to reach out to Iraqi refugees in Syria who want to go back, said Adnan al-Shourifi, the commercial secretary at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus.

Al-Shourifi said that the first free trip is scheduled for Monday, when a convoy of buses and an Iraqi Airways flight will ferry the refugees home to Iraq.

At al-Shourifi's downtown Damascus office, an announcement from the Iraqi transport ministry calls on Iraqis "wishing to return to Iraq to register" for the Monday bus or flight. It says the move follows instructions from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The diplomat did not say how many Iraqis have registered or plan to go back, but the number is expected to be in the hundreds. Eleven registration centers have been set up in Damascus to receive Iraqis who want to apply for the trip home, al-Shourifi said, adding that the government would arrange additional trips.

Thousands of Iraqis living in Syria have headed back home in the past weeks.

The move was attributed mostly to Damascus imposing harsh visa requirements since last month that make it more difficult for Iraqis to stay, but also in part to the improved security situation at home.

Syria has the highest number of Iraqi refugees in the region -- estimated to be about 1.5 million Iraqis -- and says their influx has strained its education, health and housing systems, pushing the government to tighten visa requirements and to call for international assistance.

Damascus has said the cost of the Iraqi refugees' stay in Syria is estimated at US$1.6 billion a year.

Now that calm has returned to some areas of Iraq, Iraqi refugees in Syria should go home "to rebuild Iraq and to ease burdens on Syria," said Rushdie al-Ani, a representative of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party, said in Damascus.

And even though the streets of Baghdad are still not entirely safe, people are venturing more out of their homes.

The US military says attacks across the country have fallen to their lowest level since February last year, attributing this partly to a surge of nearly 30,000 troops earlier this year.

Also, in recent months, many Sunni Iraqi fighters from Islamic insurgent groups turned against al-Qaeda and are cooperating with US and Iraqi forces in driving extremists out of their neighborhoods and villages.

Mohammed Daham al-Hamad, head of the Iraqi Refugees in Damascus group, told pan-Arab al-Jazeera Television on Wednesday that about 2,000 Iraqis are going back daily from Syria to Iraq.

He said the returnees are mostly elderly, women and children, and attributed this to an improved situation in Iraq, not the Syria visa restrictions.

Many Iraqi refugees in Syria seemed to welcome the call to go back.

Khaled Mohammad, 42, from the once insurgent-ridden Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, has been living for months in the area of Jdaydet Artouz near Damascus. He now says he will return on his own and take his family back with him.

"The situation in Iraqi, as I have learnt from my relatives there, is now much better," Mohammad said.

He said some 900 Iraqis, who were living in Jdaydet Artouz, have already gone back and only 100 Iraqis remain there.

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