Palestinians in Iraq Pay the Cost of Being 'Saddam's People'

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 30, 2005

BAGHDAD -- For years, Saddam Hussein harbored a small population of Palestinians in Iraq, trotting them out to cheer whenever he went to war -- which he routinely justified as essential to Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause.

Shiites and other Iraqis looked glumly at his wards, jealous of the Palestinians' privilege and status while others suffered.

Now Hussein is in prison. The Shiites are in power. The Palestinians are worried.

"From the first week of Jafari's government, everything started to go bad for us," Mohammed Abdulah, a 36-year-old Palestinian, said of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite who took office last spring.

Their fears were sparked by the arrest in May of four Palestinians by the Interior Ministry, which critics accuse of being infiltrated by militiamen loyal to Shiite factions and of torturing prisoners. The four men were plucked from the warren of Palestinian housing in eastern Baghdad in a hail of gunshots, then paraded on national television as terrorists.

"They showed these awful pictures of the bombing and had victory music showing the Palestinians living in Iraq and killing Iraqis with bombs," said Ayman Shaban, 33, a Sunni cleric and a Palestinian. "They humiliated the Palestinians and provoked people against us."

In a neat apartment decorated only with framed sayings of the Koran, Niam Mohammed Ahmed, the wife of one of the jailed men, said her husband "was arrested just because he was a Palestinian." Ahmed said security agents kicked her 6-year-old boy and cursed him as "son of a dog."

"It used to be good here, but not now," said Takiya Khuder Ahmed, 61, the bedridden mother of three of the suspects. She asserted that the men were not involved in politics: "They are innocent."

Iraqi authorities say the men, who are awaiting trial, are connected to a mid-morning bombing at an east Baghdad market in which more than 15 people were killed and scores were injured. They deny that Palestinians are being targeted.

"There is no mistreatment of Palestinians here," Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said recently. "We divide them into two categories, as we do with all Iraqis. The majority are safe, secure people who have lived here and want to live in this country. A small minority are taking part in terrorist operations."

"I have, in the Ministry of the Interior, only about 30 names of Palestinians who are watched or surveilled. It's a small number," he said.

But the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently expressed renewed concern for the Palestinians -- partly because of rising public anger at all non-Iraqi Arabs, who are suspected of coming here to join the insurgency.

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