Tearful Iraqi refugees return, hoping for safety

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BAGHDAD, Nov 21 (Reuters) Scores of Iraqi refugees, encouraged by a lull in violence, returned in buses and cars to Baghdad today, many in tears as they were reunited with their families.

''If it was not for the trouble we would have never left Iraq,'' said an old woman, tears rolling down her face after meeting her family at a bus station in western Baghdad.

''We were hurt a lot.'' Relatives embraced the returnees, who brought suitcases and other belongings in a sign they intended to stay permanently.

One child walked away from the bus with a red bicycle.

Displacement and Migration Minister Abdul Samad Sultan told Reuters that 1,600 people were returning to Iraq every day. As many as 2 million Iraqis have taken refuge in other nations, mainly Syria and Jordan.

''Many of those who came back are people who owned houses that were taken from them (during their absence),'' Sultan said.

He said the ministry was coordinating with the leaders of a joint US-Iraqi security operation in Baghdad to help the refugees get their homes back.

International aid agencies say the number of people being displaced in Iraq still exceeds the number of returnees.

But the government has been keen to highlight the number of families coming back to show that the 9-month-old crackdown in the Iraqi capital is working.

The US military says the number of attacks has fallen 55 percent since the deployment of an extra 30,000 US troops in Iraq was completed in mid-June.

That brings attacks to their lowest level since January 2006, a month before the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra unleashed waves of reprisal killings.

''Our families called us and told us the situation has improved in Baghdad, so we decided to come back,'' Lamia, a woman who had been abroad for two years, told Reuters Television.

''It is better than living in exile. Exile is hard.'' The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says many Iraqi refugees are waiting to make sure that the downturn in violence is not simply a lull but a ''long-term phenomenon''.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said most refugees were returning from Syria, where more than 1 million Iraqis are believed to have fled.

''The road between the border and Baghdad is now very safe,'' he said.

Sultan said the government would set up a centre to offer poor returning families loans to set up small businesses.

The centre would also prepare families to ''integrate with others'' after their lengthy absence, he said.

REUTERS RSA RN2315

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