Thu, Nov 29, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Refugees return to Iraq from Syria on first official convoy

THE GUARDIAN , DAMASCUS

Looking thrilled rather than fearful, around 800 Iraqi refugees boarded a fleet of buses on Tuesday for the first official convoy back to Baghdad since the daily carnage of sectarian violence and car bombs sent them here a year or more ago.

"I'm not nervous about going back. I feel comfortable because our neighbors told us on the phone the situation is really good now," said Kadhim Mohammed, who was returning with her husband and five children to the Baghdad district of Abu Ghraib.

A Shiite, she said her neighbors were Sunnis who had looked after the family's home during the 18 months they have spent in Syria. Her husband said the change had come about because many Sunni tribal leaders had turned against the al-Qaeda militants who began killing Shia civilians in 2005.

Iraqi officials watched with satisfaction as families piled bulging canvas bags and rolls of mattresses into the buses' luggage compartments. Notices on each bus announced that the free ride home had been organized by the Iraqi government. Some refugees carried Iraqi flags.

Once they reached the Iraqi border, US helicopters and Iraqi army Humvees were to escort them to Baghdad. Of about 30 refugees interviewed on Tuesday, all were Shiite.

Several came from Karbala, a mainly Shiite city in southern Iraq. Officials said there were many Sunnis on the passenger list and it was pure chance that none had been interviewed.

While officials have been touting the return of Iraqis as proof that security has improved, interviews with passengers yesterday showed the push factor was at least as strong as the pull factor.

"We had to go back to square one when we came here. Rents are high and I could only put my son into school. I couldn't pay for clothes or books for my daughters," Kadhim Mohammed said.

"It's impossible to live here. Once you leave your country, you have no dignity," said Halima Younis from Ameriya, a mixed Sunni-Shiite district in western Baghdad.

She survives economically through her teenage sons, who are casual laborers. Although schooling in Damascus is free, Iraqis say that headteachers tell them there is no room for Iraqi children, or demand bribes to let them in.

The surge in returns has also been sparked by Syria's decision to tighten visa rules from Oct. 1, making it harder for Iraqis to renew their permission to stay.

With an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees on its hands, Syria has been struggling to help them. UN appeals have had a poor response from governments in Europe and elsewhere.

The UN refugee agency is watching the return movement closely, believing it is too early to encourage Iraqis to go home.

A survey it ran last week among people thinking of returning found only 14 percent felt security had improved.

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