46,000 Iraqis Have Left Syria

An Iraqi woman hugs a relative after returning last month from Syria, where most of Iraq's 1.5 million to 2 million refugees have settled.
An Iraqi woman hugs a relative after returning last month from Syria, where most of Iraq's 1.5 million to 2 million refugees have settled. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 5, 2008

BAGHDAD, Jan. 4 -- Nearly 50,000 Iraqi refugees returned home from Syria in the final 3 1/2 months of 2007, the latest sign of diminishing violence in this war-pocked country, according to new data from relief workers.

"Security has definitely improved, and improved by far," said Said I. Hakki, president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, the aid group that compiled the statistics. "And yet the return is really not that dramatic, when you consider that there are almost 2 million Iraqi refugees out of the country."

The new figures, contained in a report scheduled for release Monday, are significantly lower than those provided by some Iraqi officials. One Iraqi spokesman said nearly 50,000 returned in October alone.

But the minister of displacement and migration, Abdul Samad Rahman Sultan, said in an interview Friday that the Red Crescent numbers were more or less accurate. He said the growing number of returning refugees was becoming a major challenge for his ministry, which has not yet received money to support them.

"We need more support, more backup," Sultan said. "We have funds to support internally displaced people, but not those refugees returning from outside the country."

The Red Crescent report estimates that 45,913 refugees returned to Iraq from Syria between Sept. 15 and Dec. 27. Most of them came to Baghdad, with only 7,177 returning to provinces in the rest of the country, the group concluded.

Those figures represent a significant increase since a Red Crescent report at the end of November found that only 25,000 to 28,000 Iraqis had returned from Syria since mid-September. The aid group said most of Iraq's 1.5 million to 2 million refugees have settled in Syria.

The new report said the decrease in violence that followed the buildup of American troops over the past year had been a major factor in the return of refugees. "In Iraq, the security situation improved as a result of law enforcement," it said. "Consequently, a significant number of Externally Displaced families returned to Iraq starting mid September."

But Hakki, the Iraqi Red Crescent president, had another explanation.

"People are coming because they are desperate," he said. "The majority of them are broke or their visas have expired. That's the bottom line."

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters last month that there were no reliable figures on refugees coming back to the country. Referring to the Red Crescent, he said, "There is certainly a softness to their data and the other organizations that try to track this."

American military officials have expressed concern that a flood of refugees could spark more sectarian violence in Iraq, but Petraeus said U.S. forces could not be in charge of resettlement.

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