BAGHDAD – Declining violence has prompted Iraqi refugees to pack up and return home, with the government on Wednesday claiming 46,030 people crossed back over the borders in October alone.
But the remnants of the brutality that has shaken Iraq keep turning up. The Iraqi Army said 17 bodies were discovered in an area troops have only recently been able to enter after driving al-Qaida fighters out of regions north and west of the capital.
The mass grave was found amid brush near a school in Hashimiyat, west of Baqouba, said Col. Ihsan al-Shimari. Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, is the capital of Diyala province, where al-Qaida in Iraq is believed to have a strong presence.
Many of the bodies were handcuffed and blindfolded, al-Shimari said. They likely were passengers kidnapped at fake checkpoints on a nearby road leading to Baqouba, a dangerous route dubbed the "road of death."
The discovery came a day after the U.S. military announced that another mass grave had been found in Iraq's western Anbar province. Iraqi soldiers found 22 bodies in the Lake Tharthar area on Saturday during a joint operation with U.S. forces.
Al-Shimari said he believed more graves would be uncovered soon, because U.S. and Iraqi security forces were for the first time searching some areas that were previously too violent to enter.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi spokesman for a U.S.-Iraqi military push to pacify Baghdad, said border authorities recorded 46,030 people returning to Iraq in October and attributed the large number to the "improving security situation."
"The level of terrorist operations has dropped in most of the capital's neighborhoods, due to the good performance of the armed forces," al-Moussawi told reporters in the heavily guarded Green Zone. Al-Moussawi did not give numbers of Iraqis returning home before October.
Last month's numbers coincide with Syria and Jordan tightening their borders to Iraqis fleeing their homeland.
Syria is home to at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, and Jordan has about 750,000. Many of those Iraqis are living in limbo, unable to work and running out of any money they were able to bring out of Iraq.
Syria began demanding visas for Iraqis last month and Jordan has increasingly turned back Iraqis.
Those who fled to the two neighboring countries before the new restrictions were put in place are now forced to leave when residency permits expire, unless they have been officially recognized by the United Nations as refugees — a process that can take months.
That leaves many people with the choice of returning to Iraq or risking deportation. And with the improving security situation, it appears many Iraqis are opting to return home.
Al-Moussawi did not explain whether the 46,030 included people who arrived by air, rather than by crossing borders from neighboring countries.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 2 million Iraqis have fled their country. Besides Syria and Jordan, Egypt has absorbed 100,000. About 54,000 Iraqis are in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Persian Gulf countries.
The U.S. admitted only 1,608 Iraqi refugees this past fiscal year. Sweden has admitted more than 18,000 since 2006, the highest number in any European country, but now says it, too, is tightening asylum rules.
On Monday, the Iraqi Red Crescent issued a report saying nearly 2.3 million Iraqis — the vast majority of them women and children — have fled their homes but remain inside the country's borders.
The number of internally displaced people in Iraq grew by 16 percent in September from the previous month — to 2,299,425, the Red Crescent said. That figure has skyrocketed since the beginning of 2007, when fewer than half a million people were listed as displaced.
Al-Moussawi questioned those figures in a news conference on Wednesday, publicly asking the Red Crescent to give data to support the increase.
"The increase announced by the Red Crescent is not logical, because now we are living a stable security situation and many families have returned to their original places," al-Moussawi said.
He suggested some families had registered for Red Crescent aid because they were in financial straits, but that they had not been displaced.
Scattered violence continued Wednesday, albeit at sharply reduced levels than several months ago, before the 30,000-strong U.S. force buildup here. Across the country at least 35 people were killed or found dead, including those in the newly discovered mass grave.
And in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, the police chief escaped unharmed after a roadside bombing targeted his convoy. It was the second attempt on Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf's life in less than a week.
Later Wednesday, a suicide truck bomb exploded at the office of a Kurdish political party in Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, said Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir. About 13 people were wounded, and the building and six cars parked outside were damaged, he said.