Iraqi embassy organising free trips home for refugees

With an ebb in the violence in Iraq, the country’s embassy in Damascus is starting to organise free trips for Iraqis who want to return home, an Iraqi diplomat said Wednesday.Free convoys and even airplane tickets out are part of a new push by the Baghdad authorities to reach out to Iraqi refugees in Syria who want to go back, said Adnan Shourifi, the commercial secretary at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus.

Shourifi told The Associated Press that the first free trip is scheduled for Monday, when a convoy of buses and an Iraqi Airways flight will ferry the refugees home to Iraq.

At Shourifi’s downtown Damascus office, an announcement from the Iraqi transport ministry calls on Iraqis “wishing to return to Iraq to register” for the November 26 bus or flight. It says the move follows instructions from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The diplomat did not say how many Iraqis have registered or plan to go back but the number is expected to be in the hundreds. Eleven registration centres have been set up in Damascus to receive Iraqis who want to apply for the trip home, Shourifi said, adding that the government will arrange additional trips.

Thousands of Iraqis living in Syria have headed back home in the past weeks.

The move was attributed mostly to Damascus imposing visa requirements since last month that make it more difficult for Iraqis to stay here, but also in part to the improved security situation at home.

Syria has the highest number of Iraqi refugees in the region – estimated to be about 1.5 million Iraqis – and says their influx has strained its education, health and housing systems, pushing the government to tighten visa requirements and to call for international assistance.

Damascus has said the cost of the Iraqi refugees’ stay in Syria is estimated at $1.6 billion year.

Now that calm has returned to some areas of Iraq, Iraqi refugees in Syria should go home “to rebuild Iraq and to ease burdens on Syria,” said Rushdie Al Ani, a representative of Vice President Tariq Hashimi’s Iraqi Islamic Party, told the AP in Damascus.

And even though the streets of Baghdad are still not entirely safe, people are venturing more out of their homes.

The US military says attacks across the country have fallen to their lowest level since February 2006, attributing this partly to a surge of nearly 30,000 troops earlier this year.

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