Palestinians remain persecuted minority in post-Saddam Iraq
Iraqis resentful of Palestinians due to perceived special treatment they received from Saddam regime.
Omar Ahmed rarely emerges from his rundown Baghdad housing project. When he does, he leaves behind the Iraqi-issued ID card that marks him as a Palestinian and switches to the Iraqi dialect of Arabic at police checkpoints.
The 23-year-old keeps a low profile because of repeated attacks and harassment of Palestinians, still resented by many Iraqis for what was perceived as their privileged status under Saddam Hussein. Ahmed's father was gunned down in a Baghdad street in 2005, one of an estimated 300 Palestinians killed in sectarian attacks since the fall of Saddam in 2003.
In recent months, street violence has dropped sharply across the country.
But the Palestinians, who number about 11,000 and mostly live in Baghdad, remain one of the most vulnerable groups, said Daniel Endres, the envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Iraq.
They have no political clout and almost nowhere to go, with just a few countries willing to offer asylum to small groups - a hard lesson learned by some 3,000 Palestinians who remain stranded in UN tent camps on the Iraqi-Syrian border after fleeing homes in Iraq.
The doors are even mostly closed to the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel controls the borders, and rarely grants residency to Palestinian exiles.In recent days, Iraq's Shiite-led government has taken first steps to reach out to the community, which settled in Iraq after the 1948 War of Independence and grew to 35,000 before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Starting next month, Palestinians will get new ID cards, replacing those from the Saddam era. The new cards state that bearers are to be treated like Iraqi citizens, according to a Palestinian diplomat in Baghdad, Dalil Qassous. Distributed with UN backing, the cards seek to reduce harassment at checkpoints and will make Palestinians eligible for some welfare payments.
"Even though Iraq is in a difficult situation, we will give the Palestinians the utmost care," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. But many Iraqis still resent the Palestinians, who are Sunnis, for what they believe were unfair privileges granted to them by Saddam, including housing subsidies and draft exemptions. And many Palestinians remain suspicious of Iraqis.
"I was born in Iraq, yet I am afraid of walking in the Iraqi capital," said Ahmed, who lives in Baghdad's largest Palestinian neighborhood, a complex of 16 apartment blocks surrounded by Shiite areas in the Baladiyat district.
After Saddam's ouster, the compound in Baladiyat and other Palestinian areas were repeatedly attacked by Shiite gunmen and security forces, particularly after the February 2006 bombing of an important Shiite shrine blamed on Sunni militants.
Palestinians in Baladiyat say Iraqi troops would drive into their neighborhood and randomly fire at apartments. The compound also came under repeated mortar attack. In response, thousands fled, Qassous said.
The area of four rows of apartment blocks, book-ended by two streets of mostly closed shops, still has a strong Palestinian flavor. "Long live our beloved Palestine," reads graffiti on a wall dotted by bullet holes. There's a Haifa internet cafe, a Jerusalem restaurant and a clinic run by the Palestinian Red Crescent.
A Palestinian nurse at the clinic, Lousiana Amir, said fear keeps her shuttling just between home and work, and that she stays in touch with Iraqi friends by phone. Her husband has been missing since being seized in a police raid in 2005.
Amir, 25, said she would stay in Baghdad even if offered asylum elsewhere.
"I feel it is my homeland," she said. Others want to leave, but are stuck since no country has been willing to absorb large numbers of Palestinian refugees.
Neighboring Syria and Jordan have closed their border to the Palestinians. They took in Palestinian refugees after the 1948 and 1967 wars, but are now buckling under the burden of hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis.
Palestinians who were too afraid to stay in Baghdad fled to the Iraqi-Syrian border where the UN runs three tent camps in the desert.
Endres, the refugee envoy, said the UN is trying to resettle everyone who wants to leave, particular those stuck in the camps. But it's been slow going with only a few countries, among them Iceland, Sweden, Brazil and Chile, agreeing to take a few hundred.
"It's been very frustrating," said Endres. If new homes are not found, refugees could be moved to Sudan's capital of Khartoum for several years, as a way station.In any case, it's unlikely the largest camp, al-Walid with some 1,500 people, will be emptied out before next year, Endres said. Instead, the UN this week leveled ground for the camp to be rebuilt because sewage puddles and garbage piles turned it into a health hazard.
Food and water are trucked in from four hours away. A generator provides electricity for 10 hours a day, and the refugees run a clinic and a school attended by more than 400 children. With security improved, some camp residents have made brief trips back to Baghdad.
In the Tanaf camp, a few miles away on the Syrian side of the border, Mohammed al-Boukhari is preparing to leave for Sweden as part of a group of about 160 refugees. The 45-year-old, who worked as a fashion designer in Baghdad, spent more than two years in the camp, saying he used up almost all of his savings of $6,000.
The father of two said he feels abandoned by Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, and largely blames them for his harsh life in the desert. "It's a crime committed against us by the Palestinian Authority," he said in a telephone interview.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a former Palestinian deputy prime minister and longtime PLO envoy to Baghdad, said his government is trying to help those stranded in camps, but would like the others to remain in Iraq. Al-Ahmed and other officials played down the previous attacks on Palestinians, suggesting they were part of the general chaos.
"Once this problem is solved, they would be safe like other Iraqis," he said. But Omar Ahmed, the young Baghdad resident, would leave if given a chance. "In this country, we have no hope and no future," he said.