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Scared Palestinians try to flee Baghdad

Many Palestinians fear for their safety following the latest ominous warning to the 34,000 Palestinians living in Iraq.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2006 08:38 IST

"Palestinians are traitors and partisans of Saddam Hussein," reads the flyer signed by the Brigades of Judgement Day, giving Palestinians 10 days to leave their western Baghdad neighbourhood or face death.

The pamphlet, distributed recently in Baghdad's violence-plagued Al-Hurriya neighbourhood, was the latest ominous warning to the 34,000 Palestinians living in Iraq, many of whom fear for their safety amid new threats of attacks.

As Iraq's violence spirals out of control, shadowy armed groups are targeting Palestinians, who enjoyed privileges under Saddam Hussein's regime, causing the UN refugee agency to warn the group "is in a very precarious situation."

"We are living under siege," says 50-year-old Abu Ahmed, a refugee from 1948, the year of Israel's creation, who wishes to leave Baghdad.

"I'd leave even for the desert," he says, knowing full well the grim reality that he is trapped in Baghdad as a stateless refugee, and no country is likely to accept him inside its borders.

Palestinian refugees, two thirds of whom live in Baghdad with the rest split between Mosul and Basra, arrived in the country in three main waves: after the Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1948 and 1967, and the Gulf War in 1991, when many were kicked out of Kuwait.

As the self-proclaimed champion of the Arabs, Saddam took a special interest in the Palestinian cause and the refugees received special food rations and preferential access to schools and health care -- in many cases better than their Iraqi neighbours.

While they were not allowed to own cars or houses, they did receive subsidised rents -- rents which their landlords after the fall of Saddam promptly raised.

The Iraqi human rights ministry, for its part, have dismissed allegations that Palestinians are unfairly targeted, pointing instead to the general air of insecurity all Iraqis are suffering from these days.

But without passports and often stuck at borders trying to leave, UN officials recognise they are particularly at risk in this war-torn country.

"This specific group is probably more vulnerable than any other in Iraq as they are already refugees there," Dietrun Gunther, who works for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus, said in November.

Rising inter-communal unrest triggered by the bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine north of Baghdad in February also impacted Palestinians, 10 of whom were among the hundreds killed in resulting violence.

The Palestinian representative in Baghdad, Dalil al-Kassus, said 55 Palestinian refugees have died in targeted attacks since the April 2003 fall of Saddam's regime.

In the most recent case, a Palestinian engineer who disappeared after leaving his eastern Baghdad home was found shot dead the next day.

"Just being Palestinian exposes you to attacks," said Abu Ahmed, who did not want to give his last name.

"We can't leave our homes. Our children are insulted and attacked in the streets," he said.

Another 50-year-old Palestinian, Abu Arkan, said Palestinians' homes are often raided by Iraqi police patrols.

Unlike other foreigners, "we have to renew our residence permits every two months," he added.

"However, we are not involved in political and religious tensions in Iraq. We only want to live in safety and in harmony with Iraqis," Abu Arkan said.

Back in October, more than a dozen attempted to follow the example of so many other Iraqis and flee to Syria.

They spent six weeks camped out at a remote desert outpost until the Syrians finally allowed them in and settled them in one of the country's refugee camps.

Now some refugees who have made up their minds to leave are attempting to take the route to Jordan and are now forced to camp in the desert along the border.

There are nearly 90 Palestinian families, whose members carry Iraqi travelling papers, who have been stopped at the Jordanian border because authorities in Amman refuse to let them enter, a UN spokeswoman said.

Last week, Jennifer Pagonis, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said "over 100 families had received written death threats and many are in a state of shock and panic."

Pagonis said many Palestinians in the city have stopped going to work and have pulled their children out of school because of security fears, adding that "this panic may spread and lead to more Palestinians fleeing Baghdad."