46,000 refugees return to Iraq

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The Independent Online

Some 46,000 refugees returned home to Iraq from Syria between September and December 2007, the Iraqi Red Crescent said in a new report obtained yesterday, a much lower figure than that given by the Iraqi government.

Just how many of the 2.2 million Iraqis forced into exile by sectarian violence have returned is a matter of debate among aid groups, the US military, and the Iraqi government, which is anxious to play up the returns as a sign of improved security.

The report, due to be published on Sunday, said 45,913,000 refugees had returned to Iraq from Syria between 15 September and 27 December. The figure was based on statistics from government ministries and transportation companies.

Most, some 38,000, returned to Baghdad, the epicentre of the violence between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Muslims that killed tens of thousands and redrew the demographic map of the capital as people fled their homes in their thousands.

The report said Syria continued to host most Iraqi refugees, with a population between 1.5-2 million. Jordan has about 750,000.

The Red Crescent figures appear to contradict statements by government and Iraqi military officials that suggest a much higher rate of return.

Displacement and Migration Minister Abdul Samad Sultan told Reuters in November that about 1,600 people were returning to Iraq every day, while Baghdad security spokesman Brigadier- General Qassim Moussawi said the same month that 46,000 people had returned to the capital in October alone.

The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, weighed into the debate at the weekend, saying the US military had investigated the various figures and had so far been unable to determine how they had been arrived at.

"We don't believe the relevant ministries have a thorough database," he said, adding that there was a "certain softness" to figures issued by the Red Crescent.

Whatever the true figure, the fact remains that Iraqis are returning home after witnessing a decline in the overall levels of violence in the latter half of 2007.

"The noticeable improvement in security has encouraged many refugees abroad to return home," the Red Crescent report said.