BAGHDAD -- November was on course to be the least deadly for American troops in Iraq since March 2006, with the U.S. military reporting its 35th death of the month Thursday.
The figures were a sign of respite from years of bloodshed that forced some 2 million Iraqis to flee their homes and prompted the buildup of nearly 30,000 additional U.S. forces.
The U.S. military said an American soldier had been killed by small-arms fire Wednesday in Baghdad. The number of U.S. deaths has plummeted since May, when 126 Americans died as the influx of troops gained momentum. Thirty-one troops died in March 2006.
In the past six months, streets that had been closed during the height of sectarian fighting have reopened — with strict limits. Checkpoints, roadblocks, concrete blast walls and American and Iraqi patrols are still the norm in many parts of the capital.
But some of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled their homeland for neighboring Syria and Jordan and beyond are returning — with money, transport and protection from their government. The program also seeks to win favor from neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan that are struggling with an estimated 2.2 million Iraqi refugees.
Late Wednesday, about 20 buses carrying hundreds of Iraqi refugees rolled into a Baghdad depot — the first from the Iraqi-funded effort to speed the return of families. National Security Minister Sherwan al-Waili, who met the convoy, said each returning family would receive $750 to get started rebuilding their lives.
"The returning home of displaced families is considered as a great victory for law enforcement and national reconciliation," military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. "We didn't ask any family about his sect or ethnicity. Such things were created by terrorism and will disappear along with terrorism."
Officials gave varying figures for the number of people who returned in the convoy. Iraqi diplomats in Syria said 800 would leave while al-Moussawi put the figure at more than 400.
The returning families were hustled into cars to take them home. Those who lived outside Baghdad were taken to a government-owned hotel to spend the night.
"We heard that the security situation has improved, so we have returned home. The government has provided us with a force guarding us from the Iraqi borders to Baghdad," Sami Abu Muhanad, one of those returning, told AP Television News on Thursday.
Syria has tightened visa rules for Iraqis in hopes of forcing people to return home and blocking new refugees.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus set up 11 registration centers for Iraqis to apply for the trip home. In Jordan, Iraqi Ambassador Saad al-Hayyani told the AP that Iraq will give Jordan $8 million to help ease the refugee burden.
Officials in Iraq and Syria say more than 46,000 refugees returned in October and the flow has continued this month. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees could not confirm the figures, but said more Iraqis were leaving Syria than arriving — with a daily average of 1,500 departures compared with 500 arrivals.
Sybella Wikes, press officer for the UNHCR in Syria, said the agency doesn't "think it's time" yet for a massive refugee return.
"We certainly can't define the situation as being safe in any area in Iraq," she said.
The U.N.'s misgivings continue to be borne out in Iraq's daily violence. On Thursday, police said they pulled six bodies from the Tigris River about 25 miles south of Baghdad. The bodies were handcuffed and had signs of torture and five — including a young child — had been beheaded. In Baghdad, a bomb on a minibus killed one person, police said.
Still, many Iraqis are willing to risk it — either out of homesickness, lack of money or a genuine hope that conditions are improving.
Abdul-Khaliq Mohammed, a 49-year-old father of six, left his predominantly Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad for Syria more than a year ago to escape violence. He returned when relatives said life was improving.
"I still have doubts about the current calm in Baghdad, but no matter what happens, even if the security situation gets bad again, I have no intention of going back to Syria, where life was very difficult and expensive to us," he said as he ate breakfast after returning to his house.
The number of Iraqi civilians killed has declined drastically in the past six months as tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, have broken with the insurgents and joined U.S.-backed self-defense groups. In November to date, at least 711 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. This compares with 2,155 in May.
Also credited is the six-month cease-fire ordered by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army force had been blamed for many of the sectarian killings. But the U.S. says not everyone has obeyed, and American and Iraqi forces have been cracking down on al-Sadr's followers, especially in the Shiite cities of Karbala and Diwaniyah. U.S. and Iraqi officials say they are targeting "criminal elements."
On Thursday, U.S. helicopters dropped handbills in eastern Diwaniyah with pictures and names of wanted Mahdi figures, promising a reward for information leading to the men, witnesses said.