updated 10/8/2009 4:41:09 PM ET 2009-10-08T20:41:09

Twenty families who were sent into exile in Iran by Saddam Hussein following a failed uprising returned Thursday to Iraq, another sign of Baghdad's warming relations with Tehran.

Iraq has been delicately balancing its relations with Iran and the U.S. But with U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq by the end of 2011, the Shiite-dominated government has been working to strengthen relations throughout the Middle East, primarily with Shiite-dominated Iran.

The families, about 250 people, crossed the border near the southern, oil-rich city of Basra, the first of two groups expected to return this week, said Atheer Kamil, the head of immigration and displaced persons in Basra province.

The families were exiled following their involvement in a failed uprising against Saddam in 1991. The families, mostly from the Basra area, settled into refugee caps on the Iranian border.

Many Iraqi Shiites fled to Iran under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. During the Iran-Iraq war, some even fought on the Iranian side against Iraq.

Nour al-Halou, 70, said he decided it was time to return to Iraq with his family.

Determined to go home
"We heard about the bad situation in Iraq, but we were determined to go home," he said shortly after crossing the border. "We suffered a lot in the camps in Iran, and we believe that our homeland is after all better than a foreign country."

The U.S. has long accused of Iran of training and equipping insurgents in Iraq, a charge Tehran has denied. In recent months, top U.S. commanders have accused Iran of attempting to influence upcoming Iraqi national elections.

Violence has dramatically dropped off since 2007 in Iraq, though insurgents have continued to attack civilians and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

A bomb exploded Thursday inside a crowded barber shop, killing at least five people, an Iraqi police official said.

The blast occurred while men were getting shaves and haircuts at the shop in the majority Sunni community of Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad. Ten others were injured.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to the media.

During the height of the insurgency, salons were targeted for giving Western style haircuts and close shaves. Many Islamic extremists believe men should not shave their beards.

Gunfire at checkpoint
In southern Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint run by Sunni paramilitaries, known as Sons of Iraq, killing two, said another police official.

Meanwhile, a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraq's 640,000 security forces were straining the Iraqi budget, it appeared he was standing by the police and military.

"Without security, the state cannot speak of improving essential services and reconstruction," he told tribal leaders during a meeting in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad. "Security remains top in our priorities."

The comments came as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, briefed Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Rafia al-Issawi on the American commitment to honor a security pact that outlines a U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama has ordered the departure of combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 in advisory roles.

Odierno "reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the dates and deadlines," al-Issawi said in a statement published on an Iraqi government Web site.

Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for Odierno, confirmed the meeting.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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