BAGHDAD Iraq on Tuesday called on tens of thousands of its citizens still living in Syria to return home because of escalating violence in its neighbor, after police said two Iraqi journalists had been killed in Damascus.
The Iraqi cabinet voiced concern about the "increasing incidents of murder and assault on Iraqis living in Syria", government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.
"The Iraqi government calls on them to come home," the statement said, adding that Iraqi authorities would do everything in their power to help citizens return.
The security situation in Iraq is still perilous despite an easing in sectarian violence which killed tens of thousands in 2006-2007.
Last month at least 237 people were killed and 603 wounded in militant attacks in the country, mainly bombings, one of the bloodiest months since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of last year.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis left the country for Syria during the post-war violence, but many have returned since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
About 87,000 Iraqis are registered in Syria with the U.N. Refugee Agency, said Liqaa al-Wardi, head of the displaced persons committee in the Iraqi parliament.
That compares with about 143,000 registered at the beginning of 2011, before the revolt began in March that year, she said.
Iraq said earlier this month it had reinforced security along its 680 km (422 miles) desert border with Syria, making it Iraq's most heavily guarded frontier.
Earlier on Tuesday a senior Iraqi police official said Syrian authorities had handed over the bodies of two Iraqi journalists who were killed in Damascus while reporting on the uprising.
One of the men, Ali Juburi al-Kaabi, was the editor of weekly Baghdad-based newspaper Al-Rawaa, the official said.
The second man, Falah Taha, was working as a freelance journalist for various Iraqi media outlets, the official said, adding that both reporters were in their 40s. He declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
"We went to the Syrian border and we received their bodies and we handed them over to the Iraqi authorities late last night," he said.
"The information that we have is that they were killed during clashes between armed groups and the Syrian army in a district of Damascus."
Syria has banned almost all foreign journalists from the start of the uprising 16 months ago, but authorities have started issuing short-term visas for a limited number of journalists, who are allowed to move around accompanied by government minders.
(Additional reporting by Fadhil al-Bedrani in Falluja; Writing by Sylvia Westall,; Editing by Diana Abdallah and Pravin Char)