Iraqis flee violence in Syria, return home

By Rebecca Santana

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken May 1, 2011 Salim Rahim, right, and his family during an interview with The Associated Press after their return from Libya, in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqis fleeing Syria are easily identifiable at the Baghdad bus station. They pull from the bus's undercarriage a sad array of worldy possessions: blankets and mattresses tied with cord, TVs, curtain rods, boxes from the U.N.'s refugee agency that once were filled with food aid now packed with clothes and baby toys. As violence sweeps Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, Iraqis who fled the problems their country has endured for decades are beginning to return home. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Associated Press

BAGHDAD — It's easy to identify the Iraqis fleeing the violent uprising in Syria as they arrive by bus in Baghdad.

They're the ones carrying a sad array of worldly possessions: blankets and mattresses tied with cord; TVs and curtain rods; boxes once filled with food from the U.N.'s refugee agency now packed with clothes and baby toys.

"It is better to die in our own country than to die abroad," said Zeena Ibrahim, a 33-year-old pregnant mother of two.

She returned with her husband from Damascus, where they have lived since 2006. Her husband used to be in the Iraqi army, and after receiving repeated threats and attending funerals almost daily for fellow soldiers, the couple decided to flee to the safety of Syria.

Now that haven is gone. And as uprisings and revolutions sweep the Middle East, many Iraqis are beginning to return home.

It is a development that says just as much about the improving security in Iraq as it does about the deteriorating conditions in countries that used to be stable.

More than 850 people have been killed in Syria as the regime of President Bashar Assad has cracked down on a popular uprising that began in March. Although Iraq still has its share of bombings and shootings, it is nothing compared with 2006 or 2007, when bombings were a daily occurrence and death squads tortured people with electric drills.

"No doubt Iraq's situation now is better than the situation in several countries in the region and this has encouraged some Iraqis to return to their country and enjoy some peace," said Salam al-Khafaji, Iraq's deputy migration minister.

How many will come home remains to be seen and is likely dependent on just how bad things get in the region — especially in neighboring Syria, where many Iraqis had fled.

The movement is raising concern among Iraqis about how the newcomers will affect the country's economy and still shaky relations between Sunnis and Shiites.

Iraq has seen waves of outward migration beginning with the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 and continuing through the sanctions of the 1990s. There was a brief period after the U.S. invasion when Iraqis came home, but that quickly changed when the bombings and killings began.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that about 2 million Iraqis are in neighboring states. Some are in Jordan, but most live in Syria, which until 2008 allowed Iraqis to enter without visas.

Al-Khafaji said the ministry does not have numbers on people returning from Syria. But anecdotal evidence at the vacant lot where the buses arrive from Syria suggests the beginning of what could be an exodus if the situation there deteriorates further.

Buses pull in after the roughly 10-hour overnight journey from Damascus to Baghdad.

Before the uprising began, about 12-15 buses traveled between Baghdad and Damascus each day, said bus company owner Mohammed Nosh. Now about 25-30 buses make the daily trip, he said.

Mustafa Munaf of the al-Baqie travel agency said between 750 to 1,000 people have been traveling on his buses from Syria on a weekly basis since March, while only about 250 make the return journey. Many are men going to Syria to collect their wives and children who were sent there during the insurgency while they stayed in Iraq to work.

Other travel agencies said traffic from Baghdad to Syria had dropped 50 percent while return traffic was up 75 percent. Many send empty buses to Damascus to pick up passengers.

Some returning Iraqis report fighting in their neighborhoods in Syria, with police everywhere. Others describe how Iraqis are being targeted.

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