Iraqi musician Abdel Razaq al-Ghazawi, who sought refuge in neighbouring Syria from his country's raging conflict, returned home last year after hearing about a fall in the violence.

Within weeks, disillusioned by Iraq's continued insecurity and what he saw as creeping intolerance, he crossed the border back to Syria where he scrapes a living as a refugee.

"I found out that security has not improved enough. The spread of religion has also made life intolerable," said Mr Ghazawi, who trained as an orchestra conductor in Britain.

"Artists and intellectuals no longer have a place in the new Iraq," said Mr Ghazawi as he waited for his turn to collect rice and flour rations at a UN centre.

Mr Ghazawi was one of millions who fled the upheaval ushered in by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The bulk of them went to Syria, which took in over a million Iraqi refugees, and Jordan, where up to 700,000 fled.

The US-backed government in Baghdad has called on those refugees to return and says most of them have already done so.

But many are reluctant to go back and the numbers of returnees may not be as high as Iraq estimates.

Adan al-Sharifi, commercial attache at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, said there were only 400,000 Iraqis left in Syria. Syrian government figures show 1.1 million Iraqis in Syria compared with 1.4 million before residency requirements were introduced in 2007.

"There is greater mobility and probably a large number has gone back, but people are keeping their options open and very sizeable numbers of Iraqi refugees remain in Syria," said Laurens Jolles, the UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees representative in Syria.

Mr Jolles said the number of Iraqis registered in Syrian schools fell sharply over the past year to 30,000, but refugees registered with UNHCR have grown steadily to over 224,000. Many others remained in Syria but were reluctant to sign up.

The refugee issue has deepened regional tensions, with Damascus saying the Iraqi government has done little to help its own citizens abroad. The incomers have raised pressure on Syria's infrastructure, but also contributed to a consumer and property market boom.

"There was a big movement back last year and we are expecting another big push after this school season ends."

Diplomats and international aid officials say returnee volumes are difficult to pin down and point out that the numbers crossing into Iraq daily roughly equal those exiting the country through border points with Jordan and Syria.

Around 60 per cent of the UNHCR registered refugees are Sunni Arab, a minority that controlled the political system before the US invasion removed Saddam Hussein from power.

Bashar Jaljees, a Christian merchant from Kirkuk, saw his shop being blown up by what he describes as Kurdish militia. Now he is trying to adjust to life in Syria, where Iraqis are officially banned from work.

Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen have been embroiled in a frequently violent dispute over control of Kirkuk, a centre of oil output.

At a suburb of Damascus where Iraqis first fled, residents say there are noticeably fewer refugees. Some went back but others relocated to cheaper housing in slums of the capital.

"You used to hear Iraqi accents in the street and think you were in a Baghdad. It is less now," said Abou Tarek, a real estate agent.


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