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Iraqis back from Syria face obstacles at all turns

Iraqi refugees in Syria may have been able to flee violence again, but they find themselves returning to a homeland where basic services remain poor and unemployment and housing costs are still high.

Thousands of Iraqis have returned to their country from strife-hit Syria in recent days, travelling aboard buses and planes clutching hastily-packed luggage, cruelly having to cross the Iraq-Syria border for a second time, once again to escape worsening unrest.

But the early days of life back in Iraq have not been easy for those who made the trip.

"Life is much easier in Syria than in Iraq," complained Faatin Mohammed Hussein, a 35-year-old widow who fled Iraq in 2008 after receiving death threats.

"There, you can live in a house for $200 a month, and finding a job is easy. Here, finding work is difficult, and housing is very expensive."

With tears streaming down her cheeks, she asked, "Where can I work to provide food for my son and daughter?" referring to 10-year-old Mohammed and 12-year-old Dhuha.

Hussein returned to Iraq on a bus from Syria and is now living with her only sister at her home in Zayouna, east Baghdad, with her sibling's family and five children.

She had worked as a cook for US forces in the main northern city of Mosul when she received the threats against her life, and briefly moved to Baghdad before crossing the border to Syria.

But the situation that has greeted her upon her return to her homeland remains an unpleasant one.

Although security has improved compared to Iraq's sectarian war from 2006 to 2008, and is indeed better than in Syria, deadly attacks remain common and 113 people were killed in a wave of bombings and shootings on Monday that was claimed by an Al-Qaeda front group.

Basic services remain sorely lacking in a country widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in the world.

National grid power averages just a handful of hours per day year-round, a figure that drops during the searing summer months as Iraqis put on air conditioners, leaving most reliant on costly private generators, while clean water remains in short supply.

Unemployment, meanwhile, is officially reckoned to be 12 percent, but unofficial estimates peg it at closer to 30 percent.

To make matters worse, food prices are on the rise and the country suffers from a massive housing shortfall -- the housing and construction ministry says it needs to build a new home every 45 seconds of every working day to satisfy demand.

By contrast, as a registered refugee in Syria, Hussein was receiving $200 a month from the United Nations, which covered rental costs, while also receiving a regular allocation of food supplies.

There, her home received 24 hours of electricity a day and clean water.

"There are those who prefer to die, rather than return here without shelter and work," she said.

One of those refugees who has so far chosen to stay in Syria is Soheir Mohammed, who told AFP by telephone: "How can I live in Iraq -- I do not have a degree, a salary or a house."

Mohammed's parents and husband were killed in Baghdad in 2006, when the capital was at the centre of the communal bloodshed engulfing the country.

After moving to Damascus, she began working at a local nightclub, at which point she entered into a "marriage of convenience with a Syrian man."

"I left Iraq after the road was cut off in front of me," she said.

"My Syrian husband does not treat me well, but it could be worse. I prefer to stay here and take care of my two daughters."

According to the UN refugee agency, more than 10,000 Iraqis have fled Syria to return home since Wednesday, with many of them expressing fears about threats to their safety in their homeland.

But they "said they had little choice, given the security threats in Syria," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Tuesday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called on the United Nations to intervene to provide safe passage for Iraqis fleeing Syria, and Baghdad has provided free flights to help those who want to escape do so, saying that road travel from Syria to Iraq is "not safe".

"Before fleeing Syria, we heard explosions and clashes, but the sounds were always far away," Hussein said. "We were surprised when there were battles all over Damascus.

"Now, I am here. I just want to work, even if this work puts me at risk. I want to live without being forced to extend my hand to anyone."


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