BAGHDAD (Reuters) - When Abu Mutaz returned to Baghdad after fleeing Iraq's sectarian violence for Syria, he found it unrecognizable from the battlefield he had left behind.
"I saw a different city where street cleaners were working like bees and shops were mostly open," said Abu Mutaz, who fled the Sunni Arab Amiriya district of western Baghdad after almost daily bombings made it "worse than hell."
Abu Mutaz is one of the thousands of refugees who have made tearful returns to Iraq in the past several months, encouraged by better security and fed up with the hardships of exile.
Their happiness at being back has tempered, at least for now, the uncertain future many of them face in a city where jobs are hard to find and the threat of violence remains.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, around four million Iraqis have been displaced by a fierce insurgency and then savage fighting between majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Arabs that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Aid organizations estimate some two million people fled the country, mainly to Syria and Jordan.
But toward the end of last year, a slow trickle of Iraqis began to move back after a major security crackdown in the capital that marks its first anniversary on February 14.
Instead of dumped corpses, they found shops being repaired and thriving, and even workmen collecting the garbage.
"Our neighbors called and encouraged us to return as security in Baghdad had improved," said Athraa Hadi who came back from Syria with her three children in November after her husband, a car mechanic, traveled first to see if it was safe.
"We returned to our house and my husband got back to his job. We are feeling better now," she said.
Many refugees found conditions tough in Syria.
"Life there is so hard and degrading, my family decided that dying in Baghdad was better than living there as a refugee," said architectural engineer Esam al-Ani, 37, who fled after his father was shot dead during a gunbattle in late 2005.
Aid groups say many refugees had little choice but to return because their money had run out.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report for February 2008 found that most refugees were returning not because they felt their homeland was safer, but because they could no longer afford to live abroad.
It also said that the flow of refugees back to Iraq from Syria had slowed after a sharp upsurge late last year, and that more are currently leaving than coming home.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said some returnees had come back to find their houses destroyed, occupied, or looted. Some studies suggest only 20 to 30 percent have gone back to their old homes.
The IOM also about 50 percent of those who had returned were unemployed and many reported receiving no financial help.
Some had been forced to flee again after receiving death threats, while others were living in structures with no running water that were originally built to house chickens, it said.
Shi'ite Naseer al-Saidi, 52, who works for the Ministry of Industry, let his home to a friend when he fled the mainly Sunni Doura district for the southern Shi'ite city of Nassiriya. When he returned, his friend wouldn't budge.
"I tried to put pressure on him through his relatives and he told them that he will leave next month," said Saidi, who is renting a house from a Christian family.
Shi'ite Haider Radhi, 29, quit his home in Doura for the southern Shi'ite city of Diwaniya after his family were sent four bullets in an envelope, one for each of the men in the house. When he came back, his home had been looted, but help came from his Sunni neighbors.
"They gave us donations, each one gave us part of their furniture to re-furnish the house," he said. "It was very impressive even though they are Sunnis and we are Shi'ite."
Many remain optimistic. Esam Al-Ani said he would reopen the dust-coated design office he abandoned in upmarket Mansour district to go to Syria with his sick mother and two sisters.
"It's really nice to start a new life again," he said.
But not everything is back to normal. The main street in Ani's Jamiaa district of western Baghdad remains almost empty, with most shops dilapidated and closed.
A few refugees regret coming back at all.
One disillusioned returnee is Mohammed Salman al-Dulaimi, a 50-year-old father of six who fled Baghdad's Ghazaliya district in 2006 when his son was killed by gunmen. Just three months after coming back, he wanted to leave the city again.
"The situation is tragic -- no water, no cooking gas and no electricity. If we have enough money we will travel again to Syria. Just imagine, we can't even take a bath," he said.
Writing by Michael Holden, Editing by Dean Yates and Dominic Evans