BAGHDAD — More than 7,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq have crossed back to the rebel-held Syrian border town of Albu Kamal in recent weeks due to better security there, an Iraqi official said on Sunday.
The reverse flow coincides with a lull in battles and air raids by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military, which has been on the offensive elsewhere in Syria, especially in the western town of Qusair, around Damascus and in the south.
The mayor of the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim said 7,000 out of 11,000 Syrian refugees hosted there had returned home.
"Each week, we receive refugee requests to go back to their towns across the border, they are freely going back," Farhan Ftaikhan told Reuters by telephone.
"The security situation in Albu Kamal is very calm. There have been no clashes or air strikes for about three months."
Around 152,000 Syrian refugees have been registered in Iraq, according to the U.N. refugee agency, most of them Kurds and Sunni Muslims who fled to Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region and the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar.
Dealing with Syrian refugees has been a tricky question for Iraq's Shiite-led government, which fears Sunni Islamist fighters seeping back across the border from Syria's conflict to worsen Iraq's own increasingly sectarian violence.
Iraqi security officials worry that Syrian rebel-held border towns will become bases for Sunni Islamist insurgents and al-Qaida to launch attacks in Iraq. Al-Qaida's local wing has already benefited from the flow of arms and fighters into Syria.
More than 1,000 people were killed in Iraq in May, making it the deadliest month since the Sunni-Shiite slaughter of 2006-2007, the United Nations said on Saturday.
The renewed bloodletting reflects worsening tensions between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis angered at their treatment since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein.
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