Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BAGHDAD — Palestinians living in Iraq have been warned they will be killed by Shi’ite militias unless they leave the country immediately.

Iraqi police say the immigrants, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, are the target of a backlash by hard-line Shi’ites, including members of the Mahdi Army led by Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Yesterday, the United Nations refugee agency said more than two dozen Palestinians were seized by armed men wearing police uniforms in Baghdad. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said 17 Palestinians taken from a Baghdad house rented by the agency have apparently been released, but there were reports that another group of 13 Palestinians were seized in another part of Baghdad.

In the first case, witnesses said men dressed in Iraqi security force uniforms broke into the Palestinians’ apartments in the Hay el Nidal area of Baghdad, smashing doors and windows, UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid Van Genderen Stort said in Geneva.

“It is a very worrisome situation,” Reuters news agency quoted her as saying.

More than 600 Palestinians are believed to have died at the hands of Shi’ite militias since the war began in 2003, including at least 300 from the Baladiat area of Baghdad. Many were tortured with electric drills before they died.

Now the Shi’ite militias are stepping up their campaign to drive out Iraq’s 15,000 remaining Palestinians — less than half the estimated 40,000 living in the country at the start of the war, all of whom were welcomed by Saddam Hussein and provided with housing, money and free education.

Hundreds of Iraqis were forced to leave their homes to make way for the migrants, many of whom joined the ruling Ba’ath Party.

Sheik Mahmoud al-Hassani, a spokesman for the Mahdi Army, said the Palestinians had brought their suffering on themselves. He said Shi’ites believed the Palestinians were in league with Sunni extremists and al Qaeda.

“We are sure that all the Palestinians in Iraq are involved in killing the Shi’ite people and they have to pay the price now,” he said. “They lived off our blood under Saddam. We were hungry with no food and they were comfortable with full bellies. They should leave now, or they will have to pay.”

Kareem Zakia, a 61-year-old Palestinian, said his son, Yeha Ahmed, was kidnapped and killed in the Karada area of Baghdad two weeks ago.

“The kidnappers called me and told me that they had taken my son because he came from Palestine and all the Palestinians support the Sunni terrorists. I found my son’s body the next day with many holes in his belly made by a drill,” he said.

Mr. Zakia told his two other sons to leave with his wife and two daughters, but neighboring Jordan refused to allow them to cross the border — as it has with many Palestinians trying to flee Iraq.

Ahmed Mahmood, 26, a Palestinian in Baladiat, said he had paid a ransom of nearly $6,000 to free his brother, Murad, 38.

The kidnappers in Sadr City, a Shi’ite area of Baghdad, told him where to collect his brother, but he arrived to find his brother had been killed.

“We found him dead with signs of torture on his body,” Mr. Mahmood said. “They called us the next day and said, ‘We killed your brother because all the Palestinians in Iraq love Saddam Hussein and this is what will happen to you and all your families.’ ”

Capt. Sary Farhan, a police spokesman, said people had been arrested for the killings but later released.

“All these criminals belong to Shi’ite militias and were released a few days after. They have strong backing in the government,” he said.

The Iraqi interior ministry said 7,700 police officers have been fired for suspected membership in death squads. Of those, 665 are in jail awaiting trial.

• Gethin Chamberlain in London contributed to this article.

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