Iraq, its army in firm control of its northeastern provinces after a Kurdish revolt, is trying to coax hundreds of thousands of refugees down from the mountains where they have fled in fear of reprisals.
Ten days after the recapture of the town of Sulaimaniyah, signaling the end of the monthlong uprising, some families are starting to filter back to their homes.But there is no sign of a mass return from the Turkish and Iranian borders where, according to estimates made outside the country, a third of Iraq's 3.5 million Kurds have taken refuge.
"The government has extended the grace period that was given to those people, including all the people that were in the rebellion," Baha'uddin Ahmad, speaker of the elected legislative council of the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, told foreign journalists visiting Irbil Saturday.
Ahmad, who stressed that the amnesty did not cover murderers, thieves and rapists, said the region's legislative and executive councils met earlier in the day to discuss conditions in Kurdistan.
Irbil, set on a plain 220 miles north of Baghdad, is the administrative capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and had a peacetime population of 100,000. It bore the scars of fierce fighting.
Government officials said the reb-els seized the city on March 11 and held it for 20 days.
Ja'afar al-Barazanchi, chairman of the region's executive council, told a news conference many families had come back. "Many people, between 40,000 and 50,000 have already returned to their homes," he said.
Barazanchi said Kurds in Iraq were far better treated than in neighboring Turkey were thousands had been arrested simply for speaking Kurdish - a prohibition which Turkey abolished on Friday.
"The civil rights of Iraqi Kurds have always been fully granted," he said.
There was no sign of large-scale deliveries of food and relief supplies, but there did not seem to be severe shortages either.
Iraqi officials took the foreign journalists to a road running into Irbil from the mountains to the north where a convoy of refugees waited to enter the town.
Several hundred men, women and children were crammed into about two dozen trucks and cars. "We went because we were afraid of the fighting," said businessman Mohammad Aman Khalifa.
"Now everything is quiet in Irbil, we want to go back to the comfort of our own house," said truck driver Youssef Hamid.
Officials said the regional government was sending trucks and other transport to carry refugees back from the mountains to their homes.
But accounts of the scale of the return varied with some residents of Irbil saying more than 80 percent of the town's population was still in the mountains.
Those who have returned had apparently sought refuge in areas not as far as the mountains or the borders.