Iraqis flee the violence in Syria, return home

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 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.