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.
"She needs an operation. I think one more month is all that we can wait," he said.
Like many Palestinians here, Ahmed's parents took refuge in Iraq after the creation of Israel in 1948. Hussein later adopted the Palestinian cause, using the issue to further his image as an advocate for Arab nationalism. Hussein provided free or subsidized housing to Palestinian families, paid cash to those whose relatives had died in the conflict with Israel, and exempted them from obligatory military service imposed on Iraqis.
After the 2003 invasion, landlords drove thousands of Palestinians from their lodgings. As many as 1,500 Palestinians at a time took refuge in a squatter settlement organized by the United Nations and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society on the playground of the Haifa Sports Club in Baghdad.
Thaamer Asad Melham, a 41-year-old television actor, lived in the Haifa refugee camp for a year with his wife, two daughters and a son after his landlord expelled them from their home in July 2004. The U.N. refugee agency provided him with an apartment in Baghdad, but the escalating reprisal killings caused him to retreat to the Baladiyat compound last September.
During a mortar explosion on Oct. 19, a nail lodged in the skull of his older brother, Amar, leaving him brain damaged, he said. Melham now washes his brother and changes his diapers, and he has sold off a refrigerator and bedroom furniture to help pay for medicine. Unable to find work, he stays at home with his children, who have stopped going to school.
"I am Palestinian. I am Sunni. And I am an artist," he said. "I can't stay in Iraq."
Tuesday's raid, at an apartment building rented by the United Nations to house 26 Palestinian families, appears to be the work of some component of the Iraqi police, said Ivana Vuco, a human rights officer with the U.N. mission in Baghdad.
The 17 men were held for about nine hours, accused of being terrorists and Hussein sympathizers. Another 13 Palestinians were detained the same day near the Baladiyat compound, Vuco said. Many of the families have expressed their intention to leave Baghdad.
"I don't think anything like this, to the same extent, has happened before," Vuco said of Tuesday's detentions.
When Luay Mohammed, an unemployed tailor, was being held Tuesday, someone struck him in the shoulder with the butt of an AK-47 assault rifle, he said. After he was dropped off near his apartment, he gathered his clothes and his mattress and set off with his family for the Baladiyat compound, to load up a bus and leave Iraq.
"We are really feeling terrified about what's going to happen," he said. "The only thing we want to do right now is survive."
Special correspondent Salih Dehema contributed to this report.