Horrified by the destruction they saw, many said they did not intend to stay.

The six-week fighting has left the city in ruins, without running water and electricity.

US marines estimated a few hundred people returned. This marks a very small percentage of the original 300,000 who used to call the city their home.

It had been estimated that 2,000 would make the initial foray into the al-Andalus district, which had been selected to pioneer the return of civilians to the dangerous city.

There was no let-up of clashes while the return was taking place with a back-drop of gun fire and explosions in the distance.

Those returning showed their passports and tattered identity papers to US soldiers and the Iraqi National Guard at a sand barrier checkpoint and then drove their cars inside.

The Iraqi government announced this week that returning families would receive immediate assistance of 150,000 dinars (A$130 dollars) and be eligible for compensation of up to A$13,000 dollars for property damage.

US commanders have warned, however, that it will take a long time to restore basic services to the point where all residents could return.

In other developments, three marines have been killed while conducting security operations in the Al-Anbar province, home to the former insurgency stronghold of Fallujah.

In Baghdad, a roadside bomb claimed the life of a US soldier and wounded two others, while mortar attacks killed three civilians and one policeman.

Investigations are being conducted into this week’s suicide bombing on the US army dining hall near the northern city of Mosul.

The attacker entered a tent crowded with soldiers eating lunch and, detonating his explosives, killed 22 people, including 13 US service members, five American civilians, three Iraqi National Guard members, and one unidentified non-US person.

The US military’s second-in-command in Iraq, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, has ordered a special investigation of how an infiltrator managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded US military base. The FBI is assisting.

The bomber was probably wearing an Iraqi Army uniform, said US Brigadier General Carter Ham, commander of US-led forces in northern Iraq.

An Al-Qaeda linked militant group, Ansar al-Sunna, which said it was a suicide bombing, claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack ever against the Americans in Iraq.

The strike was the second major bombing inside a citadel-like US base in two months after a double suicide blast in Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to the US embassy and Iraqi government that killed six in October.

The military is reassessing security at bases across Iraq in light of the bomber’s success in apparently slipping into the camp.

Despite continued bloodshed, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi promised “transparent and competitive” elections on January 30, saying “ballots will prove far more powerful than bullets”.

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