The number of Iraqis returning to their country after fleeing abroad is growing, with more than 46,000 people coming home last month, an Iraqi government spokesman said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army said 17 bodies were discovered in a mass grave northeast of Baghdad in an area troops have only recently been able to enter because of a downturn in violence.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi spokesman for a U.S.-Iraqi military push to pacify Baghdad, said border crossings recorded 46,030 people returning to Iraq in October alone. He attributed the large number to the “improving security situation.”
“The level of terrorist operations has dropped in most of the capital’s neighborhoods, due to the good performance of the armed forces,” al-Moussawi told reporters in the heavily-guarded Green Zone. Al-Moussawi did not give numbers of Iraqis returning home before October.
Many Iraqis coming home
The latest figure comes as Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Syria and Jordan, have tightened their borders to Iraqis fleeing the turmoil in their own country. Syria is home to at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, and Jordan has about 750,000.
Many of those Iraqis are living in limbo, unable to work and running out of whatever money they were able to bring out of Iraq.
Both countries are struggling to provide services to incoming Iraqis and began requiring visas for them starting this past summer. Most applications are denied.
Those who fled to Syria or Jordan before the new rules took effect must leave when their three-month permits expire unless they have been officially recognized by the United Nations as refugees — a process that can take months.
That leaves many people with the choice of returning to Iraq or risking deportation anyway. And with the improving security situation, it appears many Iraqis are opting to return home.
Al-Moussawi did not explain whether the 46,030 included people who arrived by air, rather than by crossing borders from neighboring countries.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, some 2 million Iraqis have fled their country. Besides Syria and Jordan, Egypt has absorbed 100,000. Some 54,000 Iraqis are in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Persian Gulf countries.
The United States admitted only 1,608 Iraqi refugees this past fiscal year. Sweden has admitted more than 18,000 since 2006, the highest number in any European country, but now says it too is tightening asylum rules.
Around 2.3 million Iraqis internally displaced
On Monday, the Iraqi Red Crescent issued a report saying nearly 2.3 million Iraqis — the vast majority of them women and children — have fled their homes but remain inside the country’s borders.
The number of internally displaced people, or IDPs, in Iraq grew by 16 percent in September from the previous month — to 2,299,425, the Red Crescent said. That figure has skyrocketed since the beginning of 2007, when less than half a million people were listed as displaced.
Al-Moussawi questioned those figures in a news conference on Wednesday, publicly asking the Red Crescent to “give reasons behind this high number.”
“The increase announced by the Red Crescent is not logical, because now we are living a stable security situation and many families have returned to their original places,” al-Moussawi said.
He suggested some families had registered for Red Crescent aid because they were in financial straits, but that they had not been displaced.
Overall violence continues to decrease
Scattered violence continued Wednesday, albeit at sharply reduced levels than several months ago, before the 30,000-strong U.S. force buildup here.
The mass grave was found in an area of brush near a school in Hashimiyat, west of Baqouba, said Col. Ihsan al-Shimari. Baqouba, some 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, is the provincial capital of Diyala — a troubled area where al-Qaida in Iraq is believed to have a strong presence.
Many of the bodies were handcuffed and blindfolded, al-Shimari said. He said the bodies were likely passengers kidnapped at fake checkpoints on a nearby road leading to Baqouba — a dangerous route dubbed the “road of death.”
The discovery came a day after the U.S. military announced that another mass grave had been found in Iraq’s western Anbar province. Iraqi soldiers found 22 bodies in the Lake Tharthar area on Saturday during a joint operation with U.S. forces, the military said in a statement.
It was the second mass grave discovered in that area in less than a month.
Al-Shimari said he believed more graves would be uncovered soon, because U.S. and Iraqi security forces were for the first time searching some areas that were previously too violent to enter.
Southeast of Baghdad, two children aged 4 and 8 were killed early Wednesday when a mortar struck their house, police said. They were members of a Shiite family mired in a local feud with neighboring Sunnis, an officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
Their father and two brothers were injured in the attack, which occurred around 7 a.m. in Diwaniyah, about 19 miles southeast of the capital, police said.
Iraqi soldier shot dead in home
Meanwhile, farther south in Kut, gunmen broke into the home of an Iraqi soldier and shot him to death, the officer said. Police are investigating the attack, which took place at 3:30 a.m., he said. Kut lies 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.
In the capital, a Shiite math teacher was killed in a drive-by shooting in the Sunni-dominated Mansour area, another police officer said. Hanaa Lafta Muhssin, 35, was walking to school at 8 a.m. when gunmen showered her with bullets, the officer said under the same condition of anonymity.
In Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, the police chief said he escaped unharmed after a roadside bomb targeted his convoy. It was the second attempt on Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf’s life in less than a week.
Later Wednesday, a suicide truck bomb exploded at the office of a Kurdish political party in Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, said Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir. About 13 people were wounded, and the building and six cars parked outside were damaged, he said.