- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won assurances Sunday that Iraqi leaders will protect Palestinians living in Iraq _ including thousands stranded in desert refugee camps _ during his first visit to the country since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The visit marked a major step in improving ties between the Shiite-led government of Iraq and the Palestinian leadership, which had warm relations with the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.

“We would like to thank the Iraqi government for its concern about Palestinians living in Iraq,” Abbas told reporters after a meeting with President Jalal Talabani.

Abbas, who also met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Iraqi officials consider Palestinians living in Iraq to be “part of the Iraqi people, so we believe that they are in safe hands.”

Palestinian exiles who fled to Iraq after the establishment of the state of Israel have been the target of persecution since the fall of Saddam, largely because they were favored by his deposed regime.

About 11,000 Palestinians still live in Iraq, mostly in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Baladiyat. Hundreds of Palestinians, overwhelmingly Sunni, were slaughtered during the sectarian violence of a few years ago in Iraq.

Several thousand remain stranded at refugee camps along the Iraqi-Syrian border where they fled the sectarian massacres. Abbas’ aide, Saeb Erekat, said a main reason for Abbas’ visit was to discuss the legal situation of the Palestinians in those camps.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh asserted the situation has improved for the Palestinians, including those in the camps.

“The Iraqi government has dealt with and overcome this issue,” al-Dabbagh said. “It is no more a problem, and now Palestinians in Iraq are sharing a normal life with Iraqis.”

For his part, Talabani said Iraq’s U.S.-backed government affirms its support for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital. “Iraq takes a firm stand regarding this issue,” Talabani said.

Abbas praised Iraq’s progress toward stability after six years of war, saying the country was witnessing “great progress in all walks of life.”

“This country has started progressing and started recovering. It has gotten out of the bottleneck, thanks be to God,” Abbas said.

The visit comes as violence has dramatically dropped in Iraq, though Iraq’s security forces continue to be targets of insurgents.

Six gunmen in two cars blocked the vehicle of an Iraqi police brigadier general Sunday evening in east Baghdad and shot him dead, police said. The gunmen escaped.

Two roadside bombs killed one police officer and wounded three other people in Anbar province, police 1st Lt. Bashar Khudaeir said. Another policeman was killed in a roadside bombing in the Anbar city of Fallujah, Khudaeir said.

Elsewhere, two people were killed _ including a 3-year-old child _ and three were wounded in a series of bombings and shootings Sunday in Mosul, police said. Sunni insurgents still operate in Mosul, the country’s third largest city, despite a series of U.S.-Iraqi security operations against them.

___

Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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