BAGHDAD — Outside the Damascus Transport Co. in Baghdad's Salhiyah neighborhood Monday, a dozen or so people sat on their suitcases, looking tired and slightly confused as the bus that had brought them from Syria pulled out for its return run, practically empty.
Not long ago, the opposite would have been the case.
"Before," said Ali Abbas, who runs Damascus Transport, "you would find large numbers of Iraqis headed out, with all their belongings. Most carried mattresses, blankets and pieces of furniture. Now the trend has turned: The Iraqis coming back are returning with their furniture and everything they can carry back."
U.S. and Iraqi officials boast that the returning Iraqis are tangible proof that Baghdad's security situation is improving. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said that 7,000 families had returned to the capital. Iraqi officials estimate that 46,000 Iraqis have returned to Iraq across the Syrian border, and government and some neighborhood leaders are pushing in television and newspaper interviews for residents to return.
Interviews with the bedraggled arrivals outside Damascus Transport found that their hopes for a peaceful life were real, though their decisions to make the trip back to Baghdad often were driven as much by the difficulties of life in Syria as by news that their old neighborhoods might be safe now.
In Syria, where 2 million Iraqi refuges have strained services and the economy, officials have imposed new entry rules. Iraqis who already were there found their visas expiring. Unable to work, they saw their savings soon depleted, with little recourse once the money ran out.
Marwa Sadiq, 21, with eight suitcases at her feet, said she might never have made the 12-hour bus ride if she'd been able to pay the bribe needed to fend off Syrian officials.
But her father, who'd stayed in Baghdad when she fled to Syria, summoned her home when he began keeping his shop open all day, not just for a few hours. That, he decided, was a sign that things were safer.
Sadiq, who'd fled Iraq 11 months ago after a large explosion near her home, said she'd been unconvinced until she crossed the border and didn't encounter any trouble on the road. "There was a tentative hope that the security situation really is getting better, and that the return to Iraq was not a death sentence, " she said.
Coming into Baghdad was a sweet mixture of fear and what she called "the overwhelming happiness of being home again, of not being a stranger, a refugee, anymore, but a 'family member.' "
"It's the most beautiful feeling," she said.
Mustafa Mohammed, 23, and his family had been in Damascus for 10 months after fleeing their home in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad. They decided to come home when neighbors told them it was safe.
"We heard that seven families on our street in Jihad are returning to their homes. They say the security in the neighborhood is better," Mohammed said.
Iraqi and U.S. officials acknowledge that the situation is fragile. There are horror stories such as that told by Soad al Obeidi, 24, whose family returned a few weeks ago to Dora, one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Last week, her husband's uncles, who'd come home at her father-in-law's urging, were shot dead as they hailed a taxi.
"One week before the incident, people had started to open their shops. But after the shooting, all the shops closed and no one reopened his shop again. They all feel afraid because they knew that the security situation was not improved at all," al Obeidi said. "And my father-in-law feels so guilty."
But those stories aren't likely to keep people from coming home, said Abbas, the Damascus Transport manager. For now, he'll keep sending his buses back to Damascus empty as soon as they drop their passengers here.
"Many of them are somehow relieved to be returning home," he said, as another empty bus headed for Syria.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Sahar Issa, Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)