About 85,000 residents have entered the city, heavily damaged in a month-long US assault that began in November, to inspect their houses, but only 10 percent of those have decided to stay, the UN's refugee agency UNHCR told a news briefing on Tuesday.

"Until the elections take place and until they see what happens, they won't go back because they're scared," spokeswoman Marie-Helene Verney of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters. "It's still pretty recent."

Falluja was estimated to have had a population of around 250,000 before the offensive and heavy bombardment, designed to uproot fighters opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

Destroyed city

Half of the city has been opened for returnees, known as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, but many Falluja residents living outside the city will await the results of the election before deciding.

"Many IDPs said they intend to stay in their current locations until after the elections at the end of January," the UNHCR said in a statement, citing a survey it conducted.

Living conditions in the shattered
city remain poor

A number of those displaced have purchased property outside of the city, the UNHCR said. "This may suggest that some IDPs are considering settling out of Falluja for an extended period," the agency said.

Living conditions in the city remain poor, with electricity sporadic, municipal water available only a few hours a day, and the city's general hospital located outside areas open to residents, meaning they have to pass through checkpoints to reach it, the UN said.

Residents returning in December said the city was unfit even for animals. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed by the offensive.