After a year of refuge in Syria, Ahmed Ali is returning home. He joined up to 800 other Iraqis who boarded buses Tuesday for a free lift back to Baghdad courtesy of the Iraqi government.
While Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government says improved security as a result of the US surge of troops is drawing refugees back, UN observers and many of the departing Iraqis themselves are skeptical about what awaits them back in Baghdad.
Still, for the first time since the war began in 2003, more Iraqis are returning home than are leaving, according to Iraqi government figures and UN officials.
For many, like Mr. Ali, they are returning because they have no choice. Tough economic realities and new visa restrictions in Syria are forcing them to leave.
"I have no money because there is no work for us here," he says, laying out on his hand what he said was the last of his money: a few Syrian coins worth less than $1.
He says he is not convinced that the drop in attacks in Baghdad will keep him safe.
"Even this bus will only protect me as far as Baghdad. Who's going to protect me after that?" asks Ali. Diyala Province, where he lives, remains violent despite a massive US-led effort over the summer to rout militants. A suicide bomber disguised as a shepherd killed nine people there Tuesday.
In Baghdad Tuesday, US troops fired on vehicles trying to drive through roadblocks in Baghdad and north of the Iraqi capital, killing at least five people, the US military said.
'I love my country'
Others who left on one of the 17 buses Tuesday said they were convinced life was improving in Iraq. "I'm going back because I love my country and security is getting better," said Abu Seif from Baghdad.
The Iraqi government recently said that 46,000 refugees returned in October, while a Syrian immigration official said that roughly 1,500 Iraqis crossed back over the border daily between Oct. 1 and Nov. 20.
"We are seeing for the first time that people are considering going back. Having said that, the majority of refugees are coming to us and saying they still don't think that it's safe," says Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
A UNHCR survey of 110 families released last week said that 46 percent of Iraqis were leaving because they could not afford to stay and 26 percent were leaving due to new visa rules. Only 14 percent said they were returning because of improved security.
On Oct. 1, Syria introduced new regulations preventing Iraqis from obtaining free visas at the border, as was previously permitted. The Syrians say that, with very limited international support, they could no longer afford to host the refugees, which they claim cost more than $1 billion annually.
Visas are now granted at the Syrian embassy in Baghdad only to those with education or business purposes for travel. Syrian immigration officials have started issuing Iraqi passports with exit stamps once their three month visas expire, says the UNHCR, forcing them to leave the country. Only those requiring medical treatment or with children enrolled in Syrian schools are granted extensions.
"People are leaving because of visa problems," says Nasser Hussein, another Iraqi living in Damascus. "Before they could go to the border and come right back with a new visa, now when their visas run out they have to return to Iraq."
The new Syrian visa restrictions sent a surge of Iraqis home in October, but local observers say that rush has slowed. Some Damascus travel agents say that around four buses leave for Baghdad daily, as opposed to the 20 that departed daily during in October.
In Baghdad Tuesday, dozens of taxi drivers waited at Liqaa Square, where the convoy from Syria is expected to stop Wednesday. The drivers were hoping for fares from anyone else returning, as the square has become the main depot for those returning from Jordan and Syria.
In the square, a massive abstract statue of two clasping hands, a symbol of reunion constructed during the Saddam Hussein era, is riddled with bullets and sprayed painted with graffiti glorifying radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Six to seven buses used to come each day. Now it's two if we are lucky," says Bilal Muhammad, one of the drivers. "A month or month and a half ago there used to be lots."
But fewer people are leaving, as well, the driver says. Mr. Muhammad said it would be common to see at least 20 families at all times milling about waiting for a ride to Syria. On Tuesday, he saw only one family waiting to leave.
'I'd go back to Syria if I could'
One of the few people standing at Liqaa Square was Naima Hamid, a school teacher wearing a veil and dressed in a gray winter coat. She was waiting to meet a relative from a Baghdad neighborhood.
Mrs. Hamid was in Syria in August but stayed for only a month because it was too expensive. "If I had the money I would go back to Syria in a heartbeat. "You journalists are being duped with all this talk of improved security and returning refugees. It is government propaganda, believe me. Things are still very bad."
But two young Sunni Iraqis walking through the square disagreed. "Look, the security situation is 300 times better … I can walk from Liqaa to my home in Jamiaa, that would have been impossible a while back," says one, who was also in Syria for a time but returned to enroll in Baghdad University. He says that he can't afford it in Syria.