By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 8, 2007
BAGHDAD, Nov. 7 -- The drop in violence caused by the U.S. troop increase in Iraq has prompted refugees to begin returning to their homes, American and Iraqi officials said Wednesday.
Tahsin al-Sheikhly, an Iraqi government spokesman, said 46,030 displaced Iraqis had returned last month from outside the country to their homes in the capital. He declined to comment on how the government determined those statistics.
"People are starting to return to their homes," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad. "There's no question about it."
Such assessments run counter to the overall trend detailed in a recent report by the Iraqi Red Crescent, which said the number of internally displaced people had more than quadrupled over the past year, reaching 2.3 million by the end of September.
Fil said the military had observed a different pattern, with 200 families recently returning to their neighborhoods in the northwestern part of the city.
"There was a time in Baghdad when there was a lot of migration," he said. "That has for some time now largely come to a halt."
In remarks made to reporters during a luncheon in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Fil also said that al-Qaeda in Iraq, a largely homegrown Sunni insurgent group that U.S. officials say they believe is led by foreigners, has been essentially defeated in the city.
But he added: "I do not mean to make light of al-Qaeda. Given a chance, they would come back swinging."
The U.S. military has previously focused much of its attention on Sunni insurgent groups, but officials have recently said more of their efforts are now directed against Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army, which is controlled by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Fil echoed those comments Wednesday, saying the greatest near-term threat in Baghdad is "probably the Shia militia."
At a separate news conference, a U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, confirmed that two of nine Iranian detainees the United States plans to release are "associates" of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that the Bush administration has called a supporter of terrorism.
U.S. officials have said that shipments of weapons from Iran to Iraqi insurgents appear to have slowed, but Smith said there was "no link" between such a decline and the release of the detainees.
In Karbala province, south of Baghdad, the police chief, Brig. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, said arrest warrants were issued against three members of the provincial council and an official from a local mayor's office who were accused of corruption.
Jawdat said the officials had released suspects improperly. "Those groups kidnapped and conducted large-scale robberies. . . . Those groups also tortured people for religious reasons, closed down wedding ceremonies, burnt and exploded stores selling CDs and whipped the owners of barbershops," he said.
Meanwhile, 49 people -- including suspected insurgents -- were killed or their bodies were found in incidents across Iraq, according to an Interior Ministry official.
In one of the deadliest incidents, 17 unidentified bodies were found in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, the official said.
He said the bodies bore signs of torture and execution.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.