Crackdown squeezes Palestinians in Iraq

BAGHDAD — Palestinian refugee Thaier Noureddine never wanted to leave Iraq, even if he could return to the land his family fled after the 1948 Middle East war.
But he’s been desperate for a way out since Iraqi security forces arrested his brother Ghazwaan and three other Palestinians in a crackdown on foreign fighters from Arab countries and Iraqi guerrillas suspected of “terrorist” attacks.

“He did nothing wrong. Is being a Palestinian a crime?” Noureddine asked.

Iraq — with its history of dictatorship and war — has been the only home some Palestinian refugees have known since their families settled here after the violent birth of Israel in 1948.

They have blended in over the years, as doctors, coffee shop owners and labourers in the major oil-producing country, but are now finding themselves under scrutiny from the police, state officials, the government and even their neighbours.

“Let them move us to Palestine or any country. I am ready to live in Sudan, in Darfur. It has problems. But if they take us we will go,” said Noureddine, referring to the devastated western province of Sudan.

Some Iraqis believe that Palestinians in Iraq enjoyed privileges like free education and low-cost housing under Saddam Hussein, who portrayed himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause and delivered fiery anti-Israel speeches.

Now some of the 20,000 Palestinians in Iraq say they have been unfairly targeted by a government clampdown on guerrillas and subjected to abuse by Iraqis who believe they were cosseted by Saddam or are involved in guerrilla attacks.

“Twenty-five Palestinians were arrested in May,” said acting Palestinian Ambassador Dalil Qoussus. “They are innocent.”

The Noureddine family’s troubles began when Iraqi security forces showed up at Ghazwaan’s apartment after a bombing killed 14 people at a crowded market in eastern Baghdad in May. His relatives said he was beaten and then taken away.

“They fired bullets at the door of his apartment. Some landed in the bedroom,” Thaier said.

Ghazwaan and three other Palestinians soon appeared on “Terrorists in the Grip of Justice,” a television show in which suspects confess to crimes including bombings and rape.

It was not possible to determine if the confessions were genuine. Some of the suspects on the show had bruised faces, including one of the four Palestinians. Detainees have often complained of being beaten by Iraqi security forces and police.

The arrests have led Palestinians to keep a low profile.

In Baghdad’s Baladiyat slum that is home to many of Iraq’s Palestinian refugees, shops have been shuttered and alleyways are quiet, with a few bicycles leaning on tin shacks. One child holding a toy gun just stared out a window.

“We can’t show our identification cards because they will see we are Palestinians. They think Arabs and Palestinians are terrorists,” said Ghazwaan’s sister Hala.

“When we go to the market they call us terrorists. We can’t even take a taxi because they call us terrorists.”

Palestinian refugees, many born in Iraq, never had much of a say in their future, and they still don’t. Their lack of proper documents makes it difficult to travel outside Iraq.

Palestinians fear being swept up in security offensives against Arab guerrillas who have carried out suicide bombings that have killed thousands of people.

Brosh Shaways, secretary general of Iraq’s defence ministry, said security forces had not singled out Palestinians for arrest, but were detaining any suspicious Arabs without proper papers.

“Unfortunately there are foreigners and Arabs who take part in terrorist acts and explosions and making car bombs,” he told Reuters.

“It is the right of the Iraqi government and security forces to take action against them because the lives of innocent people are in danger.”

Palestinians can only hope escalating violence that threatens to push Iraq towards civil war will ease and take the pressure off their community.

But guerrillas have stepped up attacks since the new government was announced in late April, killing more than 800 people, including civilians and security forces.

Thaier and others are not taking any chances.

The welder decided to close up his workshop because people started calling him “the brother of the terrorist” after the confession show tied Ghazwaan to the Baghdad bombing.

The Noureddine family say Ghazwaan was just a coffee shop owner, not someone who would carry out a bombing that left crushed limbs and bodies under burning cars.

“We have no hostility towards Iraqis. We are not related to any terrorists,” said Hala, sitting beside Ghazwaan’s children and holding up his picture.

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