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To attract refugees, Iraq touts its safety

A state-TV blitz cites security gains. But to some, the government is going too far.

BAGHDAD - A Baghdad family is coming back from self-exile. One child is surprised to see the streets filled with people. The other begs for a trip to an amusement park.

The father removes a padlock and they walk inside the house. "Thanks be to God that we returned to our people and country," he says.

But the home is a set. The family: actors reading from a government-backed script.

Iraq's government has begun a state-television blitz seeking to claim credit, and score publicity points, for the recent downturn in violence and the return of hundreds of refugees to the Iraqi capital.

Such a campaign in itself is not unusual, as governments everywhere seek ways to cash in on any good news. But this one rubs some distinct sore points.

Washington has accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration of failing to use the decline in bloodshed for needed changes. And U.S. military officials and humanitarian envoys worry that the government could actually invite danger by encouraging a flood of refugees that could upset the current security balance.

Maliki's beleaguered government, however, is hungry for any positive trends. State TV, known as Iraqiyah, serves as a countrywide soapbox. It even reaches satellite dishes among the more than two million refugees in Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere in the region.

"Iraqi television paints a picture of a government that solved all the problems of Iraq because a small number of refugees returned," said Ibrahim Karim, 43, a civil servant.

The government is unruffled by the criticism. It offers returnees free transport from Syria to Iraq, provides protection to the bus convoys, and gives families $600 each to help with resettling.

The focus on refugees returning has not been restricted to commercials. Shows on state TV, such as the daily

Baghdad by Night

, air interviews with residents expressing gratitude for the improved security in the capital and urging friends and relatives to return home.

"Mohammed, I hope you come back," a boy said when asked whether he had a message for his best friend, who lives with his family in Syria.

Other fixtures include interviews with relieved returnees just off the bus, such as one woman who said, "We will never find a country like Iraq anywhere in the world."

But the government could risk uncomfortable comparisons by coming on too strong.

Iraqis remember when state TV was the blunt propaganda tool of Saddam Hussein. They also have other options on the screen these days: pan-Arab news channels and private Iraqi stations, including the U.S.-funded Alhurra news station.

The reach of all stations has widened. Improvements in the electricity supply, plus power from generators, allow families to watch TV for longer than any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Iman al-Shweili, a teacher, said Iraqiyah "focuses on the handful of beautified and lit streets and ignores the destroyed homes and damaged streets."

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said there was a danger of a resurgence in violence if Iraq's government failed to take advantage of recent security gains.

Genuine progress has been elusive on major questions such as national reconciliation, sharing Iraq's oil wealth, and the public reinstatement of members of Hussein's Baath Party. Maliki's perceived failure to provide adequate services, such as electricity and clean drinking water, also feeds popular discontent.

"It's one thing to have brought the violence under some semblance of control," Negroponte said Sunday in Baghdad, "but it is another now to follow up with the necessary reconstruction and revitalization projects."

On Other Fronts

admitted only 362 Iraqi refugees in November, almost 100 fewer than in October, and far less than half the monthly number it needs to meet a goal of 12,000 by the end of this budget year, according to State Department statistics obtained yesterday by

the Associated Press.

This means

the Bush administration must now accept more than 11,000 Iraqi refugees before next Oct. 1 to reach its target, the figures show. The Unietd States admitted 1,608 Iraqi refugees last fiscal year. The slow pace has sparked criticism from refugee advocacy groups and lawmakers.

with the remains of 12 people, including a paramedic who disappeared more than a year ago, was unearthed near Lake Tharthar, about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, in an area long controlled by al-Qaeda

in Iraq, officials said yesterday. In Baghdad,

a Sunni Interior Ministry aide was gunned down

in his car, police said.

- Associated Press