With violence down in Iraq, the country’s embassy in Damascus is starting to organize free trips home for Iraqis who fled the conflict and now want to return, an Iraqi diplomat said Wednesday.
Free convoys and even airplane tickets are part of a new push by the Baghdad government to reach out to Iraqi refugees in Syria, said Adnan al-Shourifi, commercial secretary at the Iraqi embassy.
Al-Shourifi told The Associated Press that the first free trips are scheduled for Monday, when a convoy of buses and an Iraqi Airways flight will take refugees home. He did not say how many people had registered but added that officials expected hundreds to make the trip.
The diplomat said that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had authorized additional trips and that 11 offices had been set up in the Syrian capital for Iraqis who want to sign up.
Many have already gone home
Thousands of Iraqis who had been living in Syria already headed back home in recent weeks.
That exodus was attributed mostly to Syria imposing tougher visa requirements beginning last month making it more difficult for Iraqis to stay here legally, but improved security in Iraq also played a part.
Syria is host to the most Iraqi refugees in the region — an estimated 1.5 million — and says they have strained its education, health and housing systems, leading it to tighten visa rules and call for international assistance. Syria said it spends $1.6 billion a year on the refugees.
The U.S. military says attacks across Iraq have fallen to their lowest level since February 2006, attributing this partly to the arrival of nearly 30,000 more soldiers earlier this year.
Also, in recent months many Sunni Arab fighters from Iraqi insurgent groups turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and are cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi government forces in driving extremists out of their neighborhoods and villages.
Iraqi: Security situation much better
Many Iraqi refugees in Syria seemed to welcome the call to go back.
Khaled Mohammad, 42, from the once insurgent-ridden Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, has been living for months in the Jdaydet Artouz area near Damascus. He said he planned to return on his own and take his family with him.
“The situation in Iraq, as I have learned from my relatives there, is now much better,” Mohammad said.
He said some 900 Iraqis who were living in Jdaydet Artouz had gone home and only 100 Iraqis remained.
But others were leery. Lutfi Subhi, 70, a Baghdad resident who has been living in the al-Sayda Zeinab district of southern Damascus for two years, said he would not return until he could be sure he would feel “secure.”