BAGHDAD - The spiritual leader of Iraq's Catholics made a Christmas appeal yesterday for all those who have fled Iraq to return and help rebuild their shattered homeland, acknowledging that fear still persists even as the country enjoys one of its most peaceful holiday seasons in years.

Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Church, told the Associated Press at his guarded compound in west Baghdad that his message was one of love and charity for everyone.

"And for the emigrants to return home, to work for the good of their country and their homeland despite the situation which their country is in - that is my hope."

Sectarian violence in the country has declined largely because of a surge by thousands of U.S. troops, the help of Sunni Arab fighters who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and are now funded by the United States, and a cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

The issue of how to reintegrate the growing number of Sunni Arabs joining the volunteer forces looms for 2008. There are about 70,000 members of groups known as Awakening Councils, and their numbers are increasing fast. The Shiite-dominated government is deeply concerned about the groups, many of which are made up of former Sunni insurgents who once battled both the American forces and their Shiite allies.

But failing to bring them into the fold of Iraq's security forces could jeopardize the recent improvements in security, the country's Sunni Arab vice president said yesterday.

"This experience should not be lost because of national discord on how to absorb these Awakening [Councils]. Those people, I say very clearly, should not be ignored by the government," Tareq al-Hashemi said at a news conference in northern Iraq.

"These people have offered themselves as targets to fight terrorism, voluntarily. They must have the government's support," he added.

One road could be political empowerment. In Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province, Awakening Council leaders, the provincial governor, local officials and politicians formed an advisory group to help draw up policy for the region.

A document forming the "The Supreme Anbar Council" was signed by six leading figures in the province, including Ahmed Bizayie Abu Risha, the brother of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha who founded the awakening movement. He was killed by a bomb in September, 10 days after meeting President Bush at a U.S. base.

Abu Risha told reporters the council would seek to "represent the province in talks with the central government."

The holiday season has been relatively peaceful. Last December, more than 2,300 people died in war-related violence compared with about 540 so far this month, according to an Associated Press count.

Violence has fallen across the country by 60 percent since June, according to U.S. military figures.