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For Palestinian Refugees in Iraq, Saddam’s Downfall is Another Blow

May 22, 2003
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On April 14, even before the Iraqi regime imploded, two men brandishing a rocket launcher and AK-47s stormed Mohammed Mahmud Ali’s one-room apartment in the Doura section of Baghdad.

They issued an ultimatum that Ali could not refuse.

“Leave now or we will blow your house up with you and your family inside,” he remembers them saying.

Many of the Palestinians in Iraq — estimates of their numbers reach as high as 70,000 — are refugees once again. In a phenomenon spreading throughout the country, Palestinians are being forcefully ejected from their homes — frequently without notice, often at gunpoint.

The reason: revenge for the favored status Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bestowed upon Palestinians and reclamation of Iraqis’ property that essentially was seized by the regime.

While forced evictions are not uncommon in postwar Iraq, Palestinians have born the brunt of some Iraqis’ eagerness to reclaim their property. In Baghdad alone, more than 460 Palestinian families — about 3,000 people — have been booted from their homes by armed men saying they are reclaiming their property, according to Anwar Salem Al-Warda, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Iraq.

“We had to go,” Ali cried, the veins in his neck bulging with anger and frustration. “What else could we have done?”

Now Ali and 10 family members are crammed in a tent at the Al-Baladiyya refugee camp that seems to double as a sweat lodge.

Barely an hour after the landlord’s ultimatum, two stolen pickup trucks with no license plates and gunmen inside — his landlord among them — rolled up to Ali’s house to hasten his exit.

The government had paid the equivalent of $1.50 for Ali’s rent until the end of July, but his landlord did not care. Ali begged for a few days; the gunmen gave him a few hours.

Ali and his family packed up what they could carry and hit the street. With their furniture scattered across Baghdad, they live on rations granted by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

Still, Ali considers himself lucky: He recounted stories of friends being stabbed, shot or shredded by grenades.

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of violent clashes between Palestinian tenants and their landlords. Nearly every night, firefights between Palestinian armed gangs trying to defend their compounds and landlords employing looters erupt in northern Baghdad’s Al-Zafaraniyyeh neighborhood.

An unknown number of people have been killed in the skirmishes and dozens have been wounded, including women and children.

Ali, 60, had spent 35 years in Iraq, mostly working as a truck driver, and claims never to have experienced any discrimination.

“The Iraqis are my brothers, my friends,” he moaned, the shock still resonant in his voice.

But many Iraqis don’t reciprocate Ali’s sentiments. Muhammed Al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shi’ite whose purple facial scars reflect his troubled relationship with Saddam’s regime, says that he hates Palestinians.

Interviewed in the predominately Shi’ite Sadr City, a neglected place that Saddam favored as a site of torture, Sadr reckoned that the regime’s insistence on championing the Palestinian cause against Israel “made everybody forget the plight of the Shi’ites.”

The Palestinians’ allegiance to the regime, as demonstrated by the number of Palestinians among the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitaries who fought the American invasion, made them natural enemies of Iraq’s opposition groups.

Despite Saddam’s fiery, inciting rhetoric against Israel, the Palestinian issue hardly was central to the average Iraqi: After 25 years of near-constant war and sanctions under Saddam, they had left little time or patience to worry about a distant conflict.

Palestinians, many from Haifa, first arrived en masse in Iraq following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

The Iraqi regime first gave them temporary shelter, then built housing blocks with running water and electricity for Palestinians who stayed permanently.

As the Palestinian population mushroomed, the regime provided subsidized housing for most of them.

Iraqi law enforced a rigid rent-control system that meant many landlords earned about $5 per month for their property — and sometimes less for an entire apartment building.

One landlord said his government-mandated rent of 50 dinars, or half a cent — a fair price when it was imposed in 1975 — was not even worth collecting in later years.

Nevertheless, conditions here were by no means luxurious for most Palestinians.

Sitting on the matted floor of her family tent, Itidal Mohammed, 75, had a hard time keeping the members of her family straight.

She has 16 children, several of them married with children of their own. For 22 years, she and her children, plus some other relatives, were packed into a one-bedroom apartment.

Her landlord was relatively kind: He gave her five days to leave.

“We were ready to pay rent, but they would have nothing of it,” Mohammed said, sounding almost bemused.

Most refugees say the most destructive part of their current situation is the boredom.

“There are no jobs for the boys, nothing to do but sit in these tents,” Mohammed lamented. “How can it be that we lived in tents in 1948, and now in 2003 we are back in them?”

Iraq didn’t allow Palestinians to have telephones. Travel was made nearly impossible by the allotment of only temporary refugee travel documents, which few countries accepted.

The refugee situation is bad and getting worse. With 164 families living in the Haifa Sports Club Baladiyyat neighborhood, over-crowding, poor sanitation and the vicious Iraqi summer — temperatures here soar above 120 degrees — are increasing.

Near the Palestinian slums in the Al-Hurriyya section of Baghdad, raw sewage flows down main boulevards beside schools and sometimes into homes, sparking panic over a possible outbreak of cholera or typhoid.

“I’ll go anywhere but here,” said Karim Wahan Abbas, a resident of an orphanage converted to a shelter for Palestinians almost 50 years ago.

Surrounded by a horde of children, of which “only five” belong to him, Abbas explained that because Saddam Hussein never recognized UNRWA, the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees, Iraqi Palestinians are “citizens of no state, recognized by no one. You ask me where I want to go, I want to go home, to Haifa, but that is not possible.”

“People think Saddam did so much for us,” he continued. “But he did nothing. Only his speeches made people think we lived in paradise.”

Yet some, like the Red Crescent’s Warda, 44, mourned Saddam’s downfall.

“The loss of Saddam and the government was a great loss for the Palestinians here. He made sure that we had material, financial and political support,” he said.

Saddam had provided both the moral support and the personal touch that kept many Palestinians in Iraq over the years.

Fearing for their status, with no real hope of returning to their former homes in Israel and fearful of making new lives in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, some Palestinians have conjured a favored scapegoat to blame for the fact that Iraqis looted their belongings.

Leaning conspiratorially forward in his plastic office chair, Warda asked, “Now who do you think is the enemy of the Palestinian people, the Arab world, the U.S. and all humanity?”

The answer of course, is Israel. He believes Israeli agents bent on dividing Iraqis and Palestinians destabilized the country and encouraged the house expropriations.

A poster depicting Saddam and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, hands locked over a picture of the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, hangs just outside his office door.

“When Israel vanishes, only then will there be stability in the Middle East,” he said.

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