Fighting in southern Iraq prompts UN agency to halt refugee returns from

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been running convoys from Iran to the southern Iraqi city of Basra since last November, but spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a press briefing in Geneva today these had been stopped over the last 10 days due to fighting in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf and the overall security situation in the south. In the north, UNHCR has temporarily suspended the return of Iraqi Kurd refugees, which began in June, after local authorities expressed concerns over the housing shortage, a crucial issue in northern Iraq. The agency has been working with its partners to help build houses, provide local people with building materials, and help rehabilitate public buildings like schools and health clinics there. UNHCR is not encouraging Iraqi refugees to return for the time being, but facilitates the repatriation of those who insist on going back. Some 13,000 people have returned from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon with agency assistance, more than half of them from Iran, host to the largest Iraqi refugee population in the world. Returnees receive a package of relief items (tents, blankets, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets) and one-month food ration, as well as travel assistance and mine-awareness training.Meanwhile in Baghdad Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, on his first visit to Iraq since his appointment last month, continued talks with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salah on UN concerns over fighting in Najaf and the progress of the National Conference, which opened on Sunday and is to choose a body to monitor the interim government’s work.In a later meeting National Conference Chairman Fuad Maasum told him a delegation designated by the Conference went to Najaf today to seek a peaceful solution to the fighting. At a working lunch with Mr. Salah, Mr. Qazi discussed several aspects of what Security Council resolutions have called the UN’s vital role in rehabilitating the war-torn country.He also held a series of other meeting with political, religious and tribal leaders as well as representatives of civil society and professional unions.

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