Return home by Iraq's internal refugees slows-IRC

BAGHDAD, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The number of Iraqis returning to their homes from refuge elsewhere in the country has slowed markedly as fears over security remain, the latest report by the Iraqi Red Crescent (IRC) says.

Its findings echo those of a new U.N. study which said most Iraqis returning home after fleeing to Syria were doing so not because they felt Iraq was safer but because they could no longer afford to live abroad.

Violence has fallen sharply across Iraq after a series of security crackdowns last year. The Iraqi government and the U.S. military say attacks are down by 60 percent from last June.

Iraqi officials have been eager to stress that displaced families, who fled across Iraq or to other countries because of fierce clashes between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Muslims, were coming back in large numbers as security improved.

But the IRC's report for January, seen by Reuters on Thursday, said the number of internally displaced people (IDP) returning home had slowed sharply.

The number of registered IDPs fell by 110,000 in October, but dropped by fewer than 3,000 in December, it said.

Recent Turkish bombing raids on Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, an area previously seen by Iraqis as a safe haven, had led thousands to flee their villages, compounding the refugee problem in the area, the IRC said.

It estimated there were still just over 2.175 million IDPs in Iraq, the majority suffering from disease, poverty and malnutrition and living in homes without water or electricity.

"Many IDP families do not consider returning to their original areas of residence because their homes are partly or totally destroyed or because they do not think that security is really enforced," the IRC report said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) report for February 2008 said the flow of refugees returning to Iraq from Syria had also slowed after an upsurge late last year, and said that more were leaving Iraq than coming home.

Last month the IRC reported some that 46,000 refugees had returned to Iraq from Syria between Sept. 15 and Dec. 27, a much lower figure than that given by Iraq's government which said up to 1,600 were returning daily.

The IRC also agreed with the U.N. agency's assessment that the high cost of living in Syria, rather than the improved security situation at home, was pushing many of the 2.2 million refugees living in exile to return. (Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Tim Pearce)