Friday, December 22, 2006

Palestinians have become targets in Iraq's chaos

By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq - For half an hour last week, mortar rounds rained down on Baghdad's largest Palestinian enclave. Neither Iraqi police at a station nearby nor U.S. troops at a base adjacent to the neighborhood responded.

At the end of the attack, the Palestinians counted their losses: six dead and 29 injured, including a repairman next to the compound's generator, two neighborhood boys with their heads and stomachs split open in the billiards hall, and the bean-seller beside his pushcart who screamed "Save me!" before he died.

Most heartbreaking, survivors said, were the corpses of 14-year-old Noura Mohamed, who was decapitated while standing in her garden, and 13-year-old A'isha Ahmed, who was hit by the last mortar of the evening as she stood on a balcony to check on her brother and father as they helped the wounded.

It was the bloodiest assault so far in what has become a long stream of attacks on Palestinians, whose community has been here since the establishment of Israel in 1948 but who've never been granted Iraqi citizenship.

The United Nations refugee agency condemned the barrage, which it blamed on Shiite Muslim militiamen of the Mahdi Army, and blasted U.S. and Iraqi troops for failing to protect the Palestinians.

Iraqi officials shrugged off the incident, saying everyone in Iraq is a target and that Palestinians should approach the Iraqi interior ministry - which is widely infiltrated by Shiite militias - instead of complaining to aid agencies.

After days of silence, the U.S. military issued a terse statement on Wednesday saying soldiers had observed mortars in the vicinity on Dec. 13 but received "no reports of attacks on the al Baladiyat neighborhood that day." The statement said the military had no information "that suggests there is a coordinated campaign or effort against this particular neighborhood."

There's little doubt, however, that Palestinians have become targets in Iraq's civil war. U.N. and Iraqi officials and Palestinian residents have documented at least 17 attacks or serious threats against Palestinians in the past three months; that figure is believed to be a fraction of the actual number of incidents.

The attacks include kidnappings, mortar barrages, drive-by shootings and Palestinians forced from their homes. Palestinians and U.N. aid officials say Shiite militias are behind most of the attacks.

"Even Israel didn't do this to us," said Thamer Asad Malhem, a Palestinian who helped to transport the dead and wounded on Dec. 13 when only two ambulances from a Sunni-run hospital showed up.

Malhem comes from an artistic family: He's an actor, his brother Amer is an accordion player, and another brother is a pianist. Together, they used to perform at weddings for Iraqis and Palestinians. The brothers were born in Iraq, the offspring of parents who arrived here after they were driven from their homes in Haifa as the state of Israel emerged.

The Malhems grew up saddled with the deep-rooted stereotype of Palestinians as the beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein, who used to offer money to the families of suicide bombers and who fired 39 missiles at Tel Aviv in the 1991 Gulf War.

But Palestinians in Iraq found little help in their host country, Malhem said.

They were promised free shelter, but got shoddy government-built tenements such as the dreary towers in Baladiyat, where at least four families share each two- or three-bedroom apartment. Palestinians were never allowed Iraqi citizenship and were banned from buying houses or apartments, registering personal vehicles, purchasing shops or opening bank accounts. University tuition for Palestinian students, Malhem said, came largely from their own pockets.

"Saddam used the Palestinian issue as propaganda for himself and his government," Malhem said.

The widespread belief that Palestinians received more privileges than ordinary Iraqis drew resentment from both Shiites and fellow Sunnis. Immediately after the fall of the former regime, Iraqis pushed Palestinians out of some districts and took over their homes. Many Shiites branded the Palestinians "terrorists" and accused them of supporting or joining the then-nascent Sunni insurgency.

The low-level intimidation mushroomed into an organized campaign after the bombing of a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad in 2005. Four Palestinian men were detained as suspects and paraded on state-run television several times a day for a week as Palestinian families shuttered themselves indoors for fear of reprisal killings.

The Palestinians were acquitted, but the damage was irreversible.

"It was a brutal campaign against the Palestinians," Malhem said. "They never showed an Iranian, a Saudi, a Yemeni or a Sudanese. Only the Palestinians."

The attacks surged again after a Shiite shrine was bombed in the northern city of Samarra in February. The bombing occurred in the morning; by noon the same day, Shiite militiamen had ransacked the Quds Mosque in the Baladiyat compound, according to Palestinian and police accounts.

Since then, violence has continued. Malhem recounted several cases, many of them included in a U.N. report and all with the full names of the victims. He also provided medical records and detailed lists of the dead.

The victims include the owner of a money-exchange kiosk who was kidnapped and killed, the owner of a sweets shop who was found with two bullet wounds in the back of his head, two Palestinian officers from the former regime who were assassinated days after applying for their pension cards, a man kidnapped from his falafel restaurant and discovered in the morgue, and a widow who was slain when she tried to prevent intruders from seizing her teenage son.

Three months ago, Malhem said, Palestinian men in Baladiyat ringed their compound with a makeshift fence and assigned sentry shifts to volunteers. The next time Shiite militiamen showed up in police vans and uniforms, he said, the Palestinians shot back. The militias then turned to pelting the compound with mortars, one of which in mid-October sent shrapnel into Malhem's brother Amer, paralyzing him.

The events of Dec. 13 exemplified the dilemma the Palestinians face in a city where the hospitals and the morgue are run by the Iraqi health ministry, which is controlled by the Mahdi Army.

The Palestinians couldn't immediately get their dead to a Sunni-run hospital, so they piled the corpses on balconies until the next morning. They opened all the windows, burned incense and sprinkled rose water to mask the stench.

"If Iraqis are subjected to any assault, they can go to their tribe or their home village in the provinces, or they can leave the country," Malhem said. "Iraqis have passports, so they can leave. Palestinians don't have anything. Palestinians are just sitting here, waiting for the mortars to come."

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