- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

BAGHDAD A roof over their heads, a food-ration card and repeated promises to fight for their "liberation" are reasons many of the Palestinians living here say they are grateful to Iraq.

But as the once-rich nation languishes after more than a decade of U.N. trade sanctions, some of those 85,000 Palestinians are beginning to wonder how willing Iraqis are to share their bread. And they question if the highly publicized Iraqi support for the Palestinian issue has really done their cause any good.

During the 1991 Gulf war, during which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel to the cheers of Palestinians.

Supporting Iraq set back the Palestinian cause in the West. It also resulted in the expulsion of Palestinian workers from Kuwait and left Mr. Arafat shunned for a time by his wealthy patrons in the Persian Gulf.

To some Palestinians, however, Saddam remains the hero who stood by them and defied the United States in a way other Arab leaders have not.

Some Arab and international analysts argue Saddam champions the Palestinian cause only so he can portray himself as the Arabs' leader, rally popular support against the West and distract his own people from economic sanctions.

It's not lost on some Palestinians in Iraq that promises of fighting for their people have not materialized.

"We as Arabs … lack a leader who fears God and is honest and really works for the [Palestinian] cause," not just cares about "publicity and media talk," said a Palestinian at al-Baladiyat, one of Baghdad's main Palestinian compounds.

Zoheir, a Palestinian who declined to give his family name, is one of about 7 million volunteers in the ragtag "Jerusalem Army" that Saddam created with the stated aim of liberating Jerusalem from Israel. Criticism of the government can land a grouser in trouble in Iraq.

Asked if he thinks the army will ever fight, Zoheir said with a nervous smile: "I haven't seen a glimmer of hope. So far there's no faithful inclination toward liberation."

A college graduate and former accountant, Zoheir now sells hamburgers in one of al-Baladiyat's garbage-strewn streets, where sewage water runs freely.

Palestinian refugees in Iraq, many of whom came after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, were long considered among the most privileged in the region. Palestinians in Lebanon, for example, have been banned from all but menial jobs, forbidden to own property and are generally unwelcome outside refugee camps.

Those in Iraq are free to work, and they have all the rights of Iraqis except citizenship and they are exempted from the mandatory military service Iraqis must perform.

But the sanctions have hit Iraq hard. Now al-Baladiyat's streets are dotted with seedy, tiny shops or tin stalls set up by Palestinians trying to make ends meet. Residents speak of two or three related families living in an apartment hardly big enough for one family in one of the compound's 16 drab buildings.

Rushdi Qassem Moustafa, a 48-year-old teacher turned social worker, is a shopkeeper in the evenings. But he is thankful for what he has.

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