BAGHDAD, Nov. 11 — The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said in a news conference on Sunday that increased security in Baghdad had allowed thousands of families to return to their homes in the capital and outlying areas.

The number of suicide attacks, car bombings and other terrorist acts has fallen 77 percent in Baghdad from last year, Mr. Maliki said, adding that 7,000 families had returned to the capital. Together, Mr. Maliki said, the improvements showed “we were able, after eight months of imposing the law, to drive Baghdad from its dark, black days into a brighter time that people feel optimistic about.”

Mr. Maliki’s assertions were the latest in a series of glowing reports he has offered since the start of the security plan in February. And while his assessment of the decline in violence matches that of American military commanders, it was not clear how he had tallied the number of returning families, which officials say have been exceedingly difficult to locate. The significance of the returns is also a subject of debate.

Most of the capital’s displaced people have yet to return, and the number of those leaving still outpaces those returning, according to Dana Graber Ladek, the Iraqi displacement specialist for the International Organization for Migration.

Over a million Iraqis have fled their homes in the past year and a half, she said, nearly three-quarters of them from Baghdad. And though the Iraqi government is offering one million Iraqi dinars, or roughly $812, to each Baghdad family that returns, she said, only a fraction of residents has done so.

“The security situation is going to have to stabilize for a longer period of time in order for those Iraqis to feel safe,” Ms. Ladek said. “We’re not seeing massive returns yet.” Nearly a third of the people who do return to their homes have found someone else living in them, she said. Most returnees are also going back to religiously homogeneous neighborhoods, she said, where they feel safer and more protected from sectarian strife.

According to recent estimates by the International Organization for Migration, since February 2006 the number of people who have fled their homes countrywide had been approximately 60,000 a month, Ms. Ladek said, adding that that number has dipped markedly in recent months as the violence in Baghdad has ebbed.

The United States military said Sunday that rocket and mortar attacks in Iraq have dipped to their lowest level since February 2006, a decrease it linked to the increase in American troop levels this year.

United States military commanders said creating a safe system in which Iraqis can return home, without forcing any squatters into the streets, will be one of the government’s greatest challenges for the coming year. The government and American military leaders have been conducting censuses in Baghdad neighborhoods since the spring, and have hired local volunteers to patrol the streets in an effort to understand migration patterns.

“They want to get back their homes and their property,” said Col. J. B. Burton, the commander of the Second Brigade Combat Team of the First Infantry Division, which controls northwest Baghdad.

Meanwhile, tensions remained high in Samarra, where, according to the military, the Iraqi police and coalition forces killed seven insurgents on Friday. Fighting between the Islamic Army, a local Sunni group, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a home-grown group that American officials say is led by foreigners, also broke out near Samarra late Friday, a government official said, leaving 23 insurgents dead.

On Sunday, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division in Iraq, said the discovery of Iranian-made weapons here was increasing, Reuters reported. General Lynch said it was unclear whether the rise was because more weapons were coming into Iraq or because American troops were finding more caches.

Reporting was contributed by Damien Cave, Stephen Farrell, Khalid al-Ansary and Qais Mizher from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Samarra.

SOURCES:  

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/12/world/middleeast/12iraq.html?_r=1&ref=world&oref=slogin