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Iraqi Sunni Vice President urges citizens to return home

Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraqi Sunni Vice President, appealed to Iraqis who fled their country following the U.S.-led war to return home.

"Considering the improved security situation, we're doing our utmost to encourage Iraqis to return home," al-Hashemi told reporters following closed-door talks with Jordanian Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi.

Al-Hashemi, who arrived here from Bahrain where he attended a regional security summit, maintained that the Iraqi authorities "want our citizens back to their country because there are many university graduates among them who can help in the development drive."

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been eager to point to recent military gains against al-Qaida and other militants as proof that the security situation in Iraq is improving. Government television has been publicizing the return of the refugees, airing daily interviews with Iraqis getting off buses from Syria.

But the U.N. refugee agency has said many areas of Iraq are too dangerous for Iraqi refugees to return to. The U.S. military also has warned that a massive return of refugees could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and that some returnees have found their Baghdad homes occupied by members of the other Muslim sect.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced inside Iraq and abroad since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003, including 750,000 who found refuge in Jordan and 1.4 million in Syria.

Al-Hashemi said that he discussed with al-Dahabi Jordanian plans for imposing visas on Iraqis visiting their Western neighbor. He did not elaborate.

Nasser Judeh, a Jordanian State Minister for Information, said Amman was "designing mechanisms that would facilitate, not complicate, the entry of Iraqis." He declined to elaborate.

Four months ago, Jordanian and Iraqi security officials discussed the possibility of Jordan slapping visa requirements on Iraqis to stem a flow that followed the 2003 war that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Cash-strapped Jordan complains that Iraqi refugees were exacerbating its financial woes, costing it around US$ 1 billion (€682 million) each year, and stretching its limited resources in education, health care and infrastructure.

Last month, Iraq donated US$8 million (euro 5.45 million) to its smaller neighbor to help ease the refugee burden.

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