- 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 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.

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

On Sunday, two roadside bombs in western Anbar province killed one officer and wounded three other people, said Police 1st Lt. Bashar Khudaeir.

He said a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol exploded in central Fallujah, killing one officer. That was followed by a second roadside bomb targeting a patrol in another part of the city that wounded one officer and two civilians, Khudaeir said.

Attacks in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province have dropped dramatically since tribes turned against al-Qaida.

Elsewhere, someone threw a grenade at a police patrol in Samarra, killing one policeman and wounding four, a police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

Unknown assailants blew up a house on the western outskirts of Baghdad owned by a government adviser to Sunni paramilitary groups, according to another police official, also speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason.

Two guards were injured in the Saturday night attack but the owner, Thamir al-Tamimi, no longer lives there full-time, the official said.

Al-Tamimi advises groups known as Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, which broke with the insurgents and now work with the army and police to provide security.

Tensions between the councils and the government have risen since Iraqi troops put down an uprising last week by members of an Awakening Council group in Baghdad angry over the arrest of their commander on terrorism and criminal charges.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military said a U.S. aircraft attacked a group of council members planting a bomb north of Baghdad. One person was killed and two were wounded in the Thursday attack, the U.S. said.

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