- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

BAGHDAD — Widowed, unemployed and struggling to support an 11-year-old son, Toman Marie, 49, is one of some 15,000 Palestinians who find themselves among the most loathed and endangered people in Iraq.

Her ordeal began a year ago with the news that her 23-year-old son, Mohanned, had been found dead in Baghdad’s Shi’ite ghetto, Sadr City.

Within hours, she says, her husband, Salah Hassan, 52, and her two younger brothers, Mousa and Easan, set out on the 10-mile journey to recover the body. They never returned.

Mrs. Marie, 49, assumes all four are dead but is too fearful of being kidnapped or killed to go and check the records at the city’s morgue. “I couldn’t even give them a funeral,” she said, adding that her remaining son “can’t even leave the house to go to school.”

The Palestinians, most of them Sunni Muslims, enjoyed a favored existence under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who welcomed them as part of a pan-Arab policy in a bid to rebuild support after his 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

Most Palestinians are Sunni Arabs, which made them useful additions to the population as Saddam’s Sunni-led government sought to sustain its dominance of a large Shi’ite majority.

The Palestinians, for their part, cheered Saddam when he used Scud missiles against a common enemy, Israel, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But those same ties have made the Palestinians pariahs under the new Shi’ite-dominated order. In addition to the threats of violence, Palestinians complain today of widespread discrimination and government abuses.

“We’re just waiting for death,” said Ziad Nassir, a 35-year-old barber who has lived in Iraq for 16 years. “The only question is how we’ll die.”

While statistics are increasingly difficult to come by in Iraq, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says at least 186 Palestinians were slain in Baghdad between April 2004 and January 2007. The agency estimates that 19,000 Palestinians have fled Iraq during the past four years.

In the Baghdad neighborhoods where they remain — such as Hurriyah, Isken and Baladiyat — the Palestinians complain of regular police and military searches for militants, weapons and criminal gangs.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf denies that the government targets Palestinians.

“We only target criminals, regardless of their background, and we deal with all Palestinians the same way we deal with Iraqis,” Gen. Khalaf said in March. “We protect them.”

But Suad Saleh, 37, an Iraqi Red Crescent Society volunteer working in Baladiyat, said Iraqi police, military and local militias scrutinize the neighborhood so closely that Palestinian men between the ages of 15 and 50 won’t leave their houses.

“Only the women go out,” Mr. Saleh said. “The men are too afraid of the checkpoints to enter the street.”

Kamel Farras, a 50-year-old unemployed mechanic who lives in Baladiyat, said he no longer works because he fears arrest. “They look at us like we’re insurgents,” he said, referring to security and militia forces.

Those Palestinians who do venture out, often concealing their identities, say they face deadly risks every day.

Mr. Nassir, the unemployed barber, said he carries three identification cards with three different names when he goes out — one Sunni, one Shi’ite and one Palestinian. Even then, he avoids revealing his Palestinian roots in the streets.

“You can’t mention you’re Palestinian unless you’re trying to get legal documentation from the government,” Mr. Nassir said. “I’m afraid to register my children in school next year because the other students will abuse them when they find out they’re Palestinians.”

Mr. Nassir said the government won’t renew his residency permit because he is unemployed, so he remains in Iraq illegally. His alternative is a fearsome trek across the desert with his wife and two young children to a bleak refugee camp along the Syrian or Jordanian border.

To make matters worse, the Palestinian passport Mr. Nassir holds is scarcely recognized outside his homeland, making it nearly impossible to seek refuge elsewhere.

“Where can we go now?” asked Mr. Nassir, who fled to Iraq in 1991 from Kuwait when government forces began randomly arresting foreign nationals after the Iraqi army invasion. “We can’t even go to hell.”

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