Palestinians Under Pressure To Leave Iraq

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 24 -- The shouting in his Baghdad apartment building woke Luay Mohammed seconds before intruders broke down his door.

The men, some wearing police uniforms, entered before dawn demanding identification cards, Mohammed recalled. They tore the doors off the closet, threw the television on the floor and hauled Mohammed and his two barefoot brothers outside to be blindfolded. They and 14 other men were taken to what they thought was a government office, where a man others kept calling "sir" spoke to their huddled group.

"You are Palestinians. Why are you still living in Iraq?" Mohammed recalled the man saying. "You have 48 hours to leave."

Within 24 hours, Mohammed was gone. The 36-year-old was among dozens of people who loaded their meager belongings onto buses at dawn Wednesday inside Baghdad's main Palestinian enclave in the Baladiyat neighborhood. They drove north toward the Syrian border, joining a growing exodus of Palestinians now following their familiar story line: an unwelcome people searching for a home.

Baghdad is a dangerous place for anyone to live, and the fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has displaced hundreds of thousands. Largely forgotten amid this violence is the plight of thousands of Palestinians in Iraq, who face an increasingly hostile environment because they are predominantly Sunni and perceived as having been favored during the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Palestinians and human rights officials in Baghdad say members of the group are being targeted by roving Shiite militias and Iraqi police in efforts to expel them.

Iraqi officials said the 17 Palestinian men were detained Tuesday for "investigation purposes" because they seemed suspicious, according to Brig. Gen. Saad Abdullah of the Interior Ministry. During the detention, the officials discussed steps to "get the approvals for them to be refugees in other countries," he said.

An estimated 19,000 Palestinians have fled Iraq since 2003, leaving about 15,000 behind, according to the United Nations. About 350 Palestinians are now stranded in a desolate refugee camp in a no man's land at the Al Tanf border crossing into Syria. For more than six months they have been denied entry into Syria, and they refuse to return to Iraq. An additional 80 Palestinians are stuck on the Iraqi side of the line. Similar makeshift settlements have cropped up along the border with Jordan.

"Killings, threats, intimidations and kidnappings are becoming the norm for Palestinians in Iraq," the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq said in a report this month. "Many of these actions are reportedly carried out by the militias wearing police or special forces uniform[s]."

Mortar shells regularly crash down on the squalid cinder-block Baladiyat compound, the largest settlement of Palestinians in Iraq, with an estimated population of 4,000 to 7,000. In November and December, guerrillas staged at least six organized attacks on the area. On Dec. 13, three hours of mortar attacks killed as many as 11 people, the U.N. report said.

"Any country that wants us, we will go there," said Rafaat Musaa Ahmed, 36, a carpenter and father of four who lives in the Palestinian compound in Baladiyat. "Even if we would live in a barren place, even if it was a desert."

After evening prayers during Ramadan in October, a mortar round fell on Ahmed's apartment, injuring his wife with shrapnel. She now suffers seizures, he said, and has been denied treatment at clinics affiliated with Iraq's Health Ministry, which is run by loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

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