BAGHDAD - One-third of Iraqi refugees who fled to neighboring Syria expect their money to run out within three months, the U.N. refugee agency said yesterday in a report highlighting what some believe is the main reason families are returning to their still-violent homeland.

The report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which drew on surveys of Iraqis in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, found that the refugees were most concerned about money, schooling for their children, and lack of work.

A U.N. spokeswoman said those worries, not improved security in Iraq, appeared to be the driving force behind the decision by thousands of Iraqis to return. And as savings draw down, U.S. and U.N. officials fear, many more could be forced to return to a country still unready for them.

Mohammed Wamid, 55, a father of eight, including one son he said died at the hands of al-Qaeda in Iraq, left Baghdad for Syria in December 2006. He returned a month ago after depleting his $6,500 in savings.

"We returned because we have no other choice," he said. "The government wants everybody to come back, but we know that security is still fragile."

The Iraqi government, eager to highlight a decline in violence, offers returnees free transportation to Iraq, provides protection to the bus convoys, and gives families $800 each to help with resettling. But U.S. and U.N. officials warn that a big return of refugees could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites and that some returnees find their homes occupied by members of the other Muslim sect.

Nearly two million Iraqis are believed to have fled to neighboring Arab countries since 2003 to escape the Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence. Most went to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. About two million more moved to other parts of Iraq.

The reasons to stay away are compelling: 57 percent of families had been threatened directly, and 53 percent had survived bombings, the report said. Though violence has dropped dramatically in Baghdad and surrounding areas, bombings and other attacks are a daily occurrence.

According to the U.N. report, 33 percent of Iraqi refugees in Syria will run out of money within three months. Just over half of the children were attending school in Lebanon and Syria.

Beginning tomorrow, the United Nations will issue ATM cards to 7,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqi families in Syria: those who face threats at home or have been victims of violence; those run by single parents; and the elderly. Each family will receive up to $200 monthly, a standard month's rent for many refugees, as well as food assistance.

Conducting the surveys were the U.N. refugee commission in Syria, of 754 Iraqi families; the Danish Refugee Council in Lebanon, of 1,020 families; and the Norwegian Fafo foundation in Jordan, no total given.

On Other Fronts in Iraq

The military

announced the deaths of two U.S. soldiers. One was shot to death; the other was killed by a roadside bomb. Still, if trends hold, the month will be the safest for U.S. forces since February 2004, when 20 died. Ten have died in the first two weeks of December.

Thousands of

followers

of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to Baghdad's streets to protest a triple car bombing Wednesday in Amarah, one of their southern strongholds.

The crowds

were venting anger at a rival Shiite in a bitter fight for control of the oil-rich region.

No one has claimed

responsibility for the attacks that killed 28.

- Associated Press