More than 25,000 Iraqis who fled to Syria have returned, the Iraqi Red Crescent said, offering an estimate of refugee returns radically lower than one given by an Iraqi government eager to highlight recent declines in violence.
In a separate report Tuesday, a human rights group said Iraqis who sought refuge in Lebanon are being coerced into returning home.
The Red Crescent report, issued for the period beginning Sept. 15 and ending Nov. 30, said most of the estimated 25,000 to 28,000 refugees made the trip home in September and October, and the numbers tapered off during November.
Officials in Iraq and Syria have said more than 46,000 refugees returned in October and claimed the flow has continued unabated.
Echoing concerns by U.S. and U.N. officials that many would find their homes occupied by others, the report said many of those who came from Syria — instead of returning to their own towns and neighborhoods — joined the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced within their homeland.
The report said the overwhelming majority of the refugees — at least 19,000 — returned to Baghdad, which has seen a dramatic turnaround in recent months, due largely to the influx of American troops to the capital, the freeze in activities from the feared Mahdi Army Shiite militia, and the U.S. push to enlist local Sunnis to help in the fight against al-Qaida.
The Red Crescent said many of the Iraqis returned to three neighborhoods largely reclaimed from al-Qaida in Iraq’s control: Amariyah, Azamiyah and Dora. But, the organization warned, many of those who returned did so at least in part because their money ran out in Syria.
“The high cost of living and rented apartments and the limited employment opportunities contributed to lack of stability of Iraqi families and increased their passion to return to their country,” said the report, which drew its findings from transportation companies, and government departments and ministries.
Encouraging the return
Eager to take credit for the decline in violence, Iraq’s government is encouraging refugees to return from Syria, airing commercials on state television directed at the exiles, providing armored convoys of buses from Syria and paying stipends to help with relocation costs.
Most of the refugees fled to neighboring Syria, but some also made it to other countries, including Jordan and to Lebanon. According to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday, Iraqi refugees in Lebanon without valid visas are detained indefinitely unless they agree to return home.
“Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in constant fear of arrest,” Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Refugees who are arrested face the prospect of rotting in jail indefinitely unless they agree to return to Iraq and face the dangers there.”
U.S. and U.N. officials warn Iraq lacks clear policies for the returnees, including frameworks to settle property disputes, and fear violence will flare again if the Shiite-led government fails to capitalize on the security gains and make political progress.
Genuine progress has been elusive on major questions such as national reconciliation, sharing the country’s oil wealth and the public reinstatement of members of Saddam’s Baath Party. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s perceived failure to provide adequate services, such as electricity and clean drinking water, also feeds popular discontent despite slight improvements in recent weeks.
Al-Maliki said pervasive corruption, which has hampered efforts to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, had been carried over from the Saddam Hussein era.
“We inherited the corruption from the previous regime,” he said Monday, “and some of this administrative and financial corruption is still going on.”
He said the government was focused on fighting terrorism in 2007 and promised a new front next year.
“The year 2008 will be, besides the year of rebuilding and public services, a war against the corrupt, ignorant and lazy people who do not properly carry out their duties,” he said in a statement.
First commercial flight from Mosul in 14 years
Reconstruction officials, meanwhile, announced the first commercial flight in 14 years from the airport in the northern city of Mosul after a $13.2 million renovation.
The Iraqi Airways flight with 152 Iraqi pilgrims on their way to the hajj left late Sunday for Baghdad, where they were to catch a connecting flight to Saudi Arabia, according to a statement.
Mosul’s airport had been closed to commercial traffic since the U.S. military declared the city a no-fly zone in 1993 to protect the area from Saddam’s forces. The renovation — including the new tower and an enlarged, refurbished passenger terminal — was directed by the Ninevah provincial council and funded by the U.S. State Department.
The hajj flights have been a priority for Mosul authorities since last year when 750 pilgrims from the area were stranded at the nearest international airport in Irbil, part of the autonomous Kurdish region just north of Mosul, and missed the annual journey altogether. Hajj flights are chartered and paid for by the government, and the faithful win participation through a lottery.
Separately, Iraqi military officials raised to 23 the number of bodies discovered Sunday in a mass grave near Lake Tharthar — a former stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, according to a statement by the Iraqi army’s 1st Division, which oversees the area northwest of Baghdad.