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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 19:51 GMT 20:51 UK
Iraqi refugees make joyful return
Iraqi refugee Abass Juman is welcomed home by a relative
There were emotional scenes as families were reunited
The first Iraqi refugees to be repatriated since the fall of Saddam Hussein have made an emotional return to their homeland.

More than 240 refugees set foot in Iraq on Wednesday after 13 years of exile in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

There were tears of joy as the families, most with small children, embraced relatives upon their arrival in the southern port town of Umm Qasr.

However, the United Nations has warned that Iraq is far from ready for a mass return and only small numbers will be repatriated in the coming weeks.

In other Iraq developments:

  • The Iraqi Governing Council has named Shia politician, Ibrahim al-Jafari, as its first president, after deciding the job should be rotated among nine of its 25 members in alphabetical order

    I am home. I am Iraqi. I dreamed of this day
    Refugee Layla Hassan

  • In Baghdad, about 150 Iraqis have staged a demonstration in protest at the killing of five civilians by US special forces at the home of tribal leader Prince Rabiah Amin, on Sunday

  • CIA analysts say it is highly likely that an audiotape purportedly of Saddam Hussein mourning the death of his two sons, broadcast on Arabic television, is genuine.

The convoy of 10 buses and trucks carried refugees from the Rafha camp - housing 5,000 in the Saudi desert - over the border into Iraq.

Similar convoys will run every 10 days to move others from the camp, which was established in 1991 for those who fled after a Shia uprising was brutally suppressed by the Iraqi regime.

"I feel like my soul has returned to my body," said a tearful Ali Salman upon his arrival at Umm Qasr.

"I can't believe I am actually home and that I will see my family again. I just can't believe it."

Improved security

He is one of half a million Iraqi refugees in Saudi alone, and among four million around the world.

But with a continuing bloody resistance in Iraq to the US-led coalition and a lack of basic services, many refugees are still fearful of returning.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has also warned against a mass return, saying the country simply is not ready.

UNHCR spokesman Karim Atassi told the BBC that more needed to be done in Iraq and they would be monitoring the situation in the coming weeks and months.

Click below to see a map of refugee camps in the region

"First an improvement in the safety and stability, more physical safety for the returnees, employment opportunities, jobs," he said.

"We would like the return to be a sustainable return. For the moment what we are going to witness in the next weeks is only a small scale repatriation."

Those in the first convoy from Rafha had volunteered to go.

Layla Hassan went to Rafha aged just three but, after living almost all her life in Saudi Arabia, the veiled 16-year-old was ecstatic to be in Iraq.

"I am home. I am Iraqi. I dreamed of this day," she said.

Mohammed Qassem, 35, broke down in tears as he spotted his brother, Abdul-Karim, who had fled their town of Kurnat Ali in 1991.

Despite police attempts to keep him away from the vehicle, Qassem managed to kiss his brother through the glass pane of the bus door.

"His mother and father have died, and he still doesn't know," he said.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"There are thought to be four million Iraqis living in exile"

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