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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The United Nations estimates that up to 1.6 million Iraqis have left their homes for other countries in "a steady, silent exodus" as a result of the war and sectarian violence, forcing the U.N. refugee agency to announce a shift in priorities.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it plans to focus on the deteriorating humanitarian situation facing people who are fleeing, as opposed to those returning home.
"The enormous scale of the needs, the ongoing violence and the difficulties in reaching the displaced make it a problem that is practically beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR," it said.
The 2006 budget of $29 million for its Iraq operation was still $9 million short, the agency said, adding that more funding is needed to address the refugee crisis.
At least 40,000 Iraqis a month were arriving in Syria, according to U.N. staffers monitoring the border. Refugees have also fled to Iran, and "tens of thousands" are headed to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf states and Europe," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
The agency estimated there are half a million Iraqis already in Jordan and 450,000 in Syria, adding that while some have been outside Iraq for a decade or more, arrivals have steadily risen since the war began in 2003.
Within Iraq itself, the Iraqi government and UNHCR estimate "more than 1.5 million people displaced ... including more than 365,000 newly displaced who have fled their homes and communities" since February.
That was when the Askariya mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra, was bombed, igniting Shiite-Sunni fighting.
Some of Iraq's 18 provinces have seen a tenfold increase in the number of internally displaced people since the beginning of the year, UNHCR said.
The UNHCR office appealed to neighboring countries "to continue extending hospitality" for Iraqis and for countries beyond the region to do the same.
Iraqis ranked first, with more than 8,100 applications, among some 40 nationalities seeking asylum in Europe in the first half of this year, the agency said.
Iraqi asylum claims went up 50 percent during the first of this year from the same period a year ago, according to statistics received from 36 industrialized countries, the agency said.
Attacks kill nine; kidnapped workers' bodies found
Bombs and gunmen were to blame for the deaths of nine people, including three family members, as authorities announced that 14 workers kidnapped in Salaheddin province have been found dead.
The construction workers were kidnapped by gunmen after leaving work Thursday in the mainly Sunni town of Dhuluiya, 50 miles north of Baghdad, according to the province's Joint Coordination Center.
The bodies, with their throats slit and their hands and legs bound, were dumped in an orchard near town, said an official at the center.
In Baghdad, an official with emergency police told CNN that police had found 53 bullet-riddled bodies in various neighborhoods of the capital on Thursday and Friday. The official said that some of the bodies showed signs of torture and that police could not immediately identify them.
In Baquba, gunmen stormed a house of a Shiite family Friday and killed a father and two sons, an official with Diyala Joint Coordination Center told CNN.
Iraqi security was also targeted.
An explosion inside the headquarters of an elite police squad killed the commander of the force and his aide, and wounded eight other officers in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, Friday morning, police said.
Hilla police identified the commander as Col. Salam al-Mamoury, who was in charge of the force known as the "Scorpion team."
A preliminary investigation points to a bomb as the source of the blast.
A suicide car bomb targeting an Iraqi army convoy killed three Iraqi soldiers and wounded three others in Mazraa, east of Tal Afar in Nineveh province, a police official in Mosul told CNN.
The U.S. military also reported the bombing death of a U.S. soldier, saying it occurred during "vehicle operations" in northern Iraq Thursday, bringing the number of U.S. military deaths to 2,747. Seven military contractors have also been killed.
The dead soldier was identified as a member of Task Force Lightning Soldier from the 105th Engineer Group.
So far in October, 40 U.S. troops have been killed.
CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.
An Iraqi girl gets water at a refugee camp in the Shula district in Baghdad in earlier this year.
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