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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.

"They have been victims of night raids, arbitrary arrests and torture carried out by Iraqi security forces," according to Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva. Palestinians in Baghdad offer up stories of daily insults and of being spat upon and beaten by Iraqis who learn of their nationality.

"The problem is, they consider us former regime henchmen," said Ahmed Mussa, 30, a lawyer who wears three-piece suits. After Mussa began representing the four men arrested in May, he started receiving death threats in the mail.

After the fall of Hussein in 2003, several thousand Palestinians left for Jordan and were stuck in a no-man's land at the border. Most eventually went to a refugee camp just inside Jordan. With the new threats, another group of 19 Palestinians left the capital in October for Syria and spent more than a month camped in the no-man's land before they were finally let into a refugee camp in northeastern Syria, according to Stort.

But the majority of Palestinians here are hunkering down in Baghdad. Most live in a neighborhood of shabby concrete buildings where they have been housed, at government expense, for decades.

Iraq's Palestinian population largely grew from the nearly 4,000 who fled to Iraq when Jewish forces took control of Haifa during the creation of Israel in 1948. The UNHCR says there are now about 23,000 Palestinians here. But others say the true number of Palestinians, including those who have managed to blend into Iraqi society, is several times that.

Successive Iraqi governments nurtured them, and Hussein used them to bolster his claim as an Arab nationalist leader. They were frequently lauded in the government-controlled media. Hussein made world headlines by promising a house and $25,000 to each Palestinian family in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that had a member killed while attacking Israel.

Palestinians were not allowed to become Iraqi citizens under Hussein's rule and were discouraged from purchasing property, but they were given housing and free utilities and were exempt from military service. They were also favored for government positions and allowed to travel more freely than Iraqi citizens.

Shiites, who were massacred and tortured by the thousands, resented how Hussein's government championed the Palestinians' plight. Some Iraqis sneeringly called them saddamiyoon -- Saddam's people.

The Palestinians say their position was less privileged than it seemed. "This was all just talk," said Thayer Mahdi, 39, a Palestinian who owns a clothing store. "We suffered like all Iraqis."

When Hussein fell, nearly 1,500 Palestinians were forced from their homes as landlords suddenly found themselves free to raise rents and evict their formerly privileged tenants. They lived for a while in tents at a sports club in Baghdad before eventually finding other housing.

Since the arrest of the four men on May 12, Palestinians say at least five men have recently been kidnapped and killed. More than 100 were imprisoned by U.S. or Iraqi forces, although that number has dropped by about half, they say.

Kidnappings, killings and detentions occur in all segments of Iraqi society. But the Palestinians say they are especially vulnerable.

"We are afraid. We are afraid that we will be stopped at a checkpoint and arrested and accused of being a terrorist," said Shaban, the Palestinian cleric. "There is nothing you could do if that happened."

Correspondent Jonathan Finer contributed to this report.

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