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By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, Nov 7 A senior Iraqi military official said on Wednesday that more than 46,000 people had returned to their homes in Baghdad from outside Iraq in October as security improved in the capital.
The figure was a large jump from earlier government estimates that 3,200 families had returned to their homes in Baghdad since January.
"As a result of the improvement of the security situation in the capital Baghdad the total number of Iraqis returning from outside through Iraqi border exit points during October reached 46,030," Baghdad security spokesman Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi told a news conference.
Moussawi said the figures were a sign that a new security strategy in Iraq, including a "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. troops in and around Baghdad, more active Iraqi security forces and neighbourhood policing, was paying off.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which tracks the movement of displaced Iraqis, said Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration had registered the return of some 3,350 families, or 20,000 people, to Baghdad since January. Most had come from other areas within Iraq.
Dana Graber, an Iraqi displacement expert at IOM in Jordan, said she had not seen the figures referred to by Moussawi and could not comment on the apparent discrepancies.
"The rate of return has begun to pick up. It tends to be more of a trickle going to homogenous areas. Iraqis are waiting to make sure the current status of security is a long-term phenomenon," she told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Civilian deaths in October hit their lowest level this year, and U.S. military fatalities also dropped sharply. Despite the recent decline, the high casualty levels earlier this year mean 2007 has been the deadliest year for U.S. forces since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Suicide bombings, kidnappings, and sectarian violence have forced millions of Iraqis to seek refuge in other parts of the country or abroad.
Aid workers estimate that at least 2.2 million Iraqis have fled to other countries, mainly Syria and Jordan. Both those countries have tightened migration rules for Iraqis.
The Iraqi Red Crescent has reported that the number of people displaced within Iraq has grown steadily for almost two years, reaching 2.3 million at the end of September.
Even as violence drops off, Moussawi said that 16 decomposing bodies had been found on Oct. 30th in an empty building in downtown Baghdad.
Iraqi soldiers on Wednesday found 17 decomposing bodies in a remote field in Hashmiyat village in the western part of Baquba, some 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, Baquba police said.
Moussawi also said Baghdad city officials had imported an initial shipment of security cameras, similar to those used in London, to be used around the city. (Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Wathiq Ibrahim; writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Dominic Evans)