baghdad bombing 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
After 18 members of her family were brutally murdered by Shi'ite militiamen in Baghdad, Nadia Othman, a 36-year-old Palestinian mother of three, finally managed to escape to Jordan together with hundreds of Palestinian families that had been living in Iraq for decades.
In 2006, more than 600 Palestinians were killed in the Iraqi capital in what Palestinian leaders and political activists are describing as a "systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing." Thousands of Palestinian families have been forced to flee Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, but many still have no place to go to.
Iraq's Arab neighbors, Syria and Jordan, have imposed stringent restrictions on the entry of the refugees, leaving many of them stranded along the border in harsh and inhuman conditions.
Until three years ago, the number of Palestinians living in Iraq was estimated at 30,000. Under Saddam, Palestinians enjoyed many privileges that only a few Iraqis were entitled to: free accommodation, free health services and free education.
Today, Nadia said, "There are less than 10,000 Palestinians living in Iraq and most of them are afraid to walk out of their homes. My sister, who stayed behind, told me this week that she hasn't left her apartment in the Baladiyat suburb of Baghdad for the past three weeks for fear of being killed by Shi'ite militiamen. I'm very concerned for the safety of my mother and five brothers who have still not been able to escape from Iraq."
Nadia's decision to leave her home came shortly after one of her brothers, Muhammad Rashid, was killed by Shi'ite gunmen as he was on his way to the school where he worked as an Arabic language teacher.
"The murderers stopped him in the street, asked for his ID documents, and when they saw that he was a Palestinian refugee, they immediately fired three bullets at his head," she said. "On the same day, they kidnapped and murdered Farid Al-Sayed, chairman of the Palestinian-controlled Haifa Sports Club in Iraq."
Another Palestinian who fled Iraq and was recently reunited with his family in the northern West Bank described the campaign against the Palestinians in Iraq as "genocide." The Shi'ites, particularly the pro-Iranian Mahdi Army, are waging a war to eliminate the entire Palestinian population in Iraq, he told The Jerusalem Post. "This is a real genocide. Why isn't the international community doing anything to stop this? How come none of the Arab countries has even issued a statement condemning the atrocities?"
He said Palestinians who were still living in Baghdad are so afraid that they are using forged documents to conceal their true identity. "It's very dangerous to be a Palestinian in Iraq," he said. "The murderers stop you in the street and ask you to say a few sentences. If they see that you have a Palestinian accent, they make you stand against the wall and shoot you. These are ruthless murderers."
In the past few months, he added, he heard "horror" stories about Palestinians who were kidnapped and brutally tortured by the Shi'ite militiamen. "Some have had their ears and noses cut off," he said. "I saw them with my own eyes. The heads of some victims were severed and sent to their families. Many families have had their homes ransacked before they were forced to leave."
Zakariya Al-Agha, head of the PLO Refugees Department, expressed deep concern over the fate of the Palestinians in Iraq.
"A large number of Palestinians who ran away from Iraq are now living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Ruwaished area near the Iraq-Jordan border," he said. "The Jordanian authorities have allowed many to enter the kingdom, especially those families whose parents carry Jordanian citizenship, but that is not enough."
Agha said another 400 Palestinians were now living in tents provided by humanitarian organizations along the border between Syria and Iraq after the Syrian authorities denied them entry. "Others were more fortunate to find shelter in Egypt and Yemen," he said. "Just last week another four Palestinians were abducted and brutally murdered in Baghdad. Our people in Iraq are facing ethnic cleansing and this is a real tragedy."
According to information gathered by Agha's department, some 100 Palestinians who were kidnapped in the past few months are still missing and presumed dead. In addition, the Iraqi authorities have arrested dozens of Palestinians for unspecified charges.
A Palestinian man who was released two weeks ago from prison in Iraq said his interrogators repeatedly accused him and all Palestinians of supporting Saddam Hussein's suppression of the Shi'ites over the past three decades. He had been kidnapped together with 40 Palestinians from the Amin neighborhood in Iraq.
"When we arrived at the prison," he said, "the Shi'ite militiamen began shouting, 'We have brought the Palestinians, we have brought the terrorists!' After they beat us for hours, they took us for questioning. They kept asking, 'Why do you Palestinians love Saddam Hussein so much? Why did you take to the streets to protest against his execution? We want all the Palestinians out of Iraq or else we will finish off all of you.'"
Khairiyeh Yehya, director of a think-tank organization in Jenin, said Palestinians in Iraq were paying a heavy price "just because of their nationality."
"The defenseless Palestinians... have become easy prey for the agents of the American occupation and all those who hate our people," she said. "How can anyone justify these killings?"
Atef Udwan, minister for refugees affairs in the Hamas-led government, said his office was searching for a way to allow the Palestinians in Iraq to move to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"This requires a political solution," he said. "We need to persuade Israel to give these poor people permission to enter our territories. This is a purely humanitarian issue that must be addressed urgently."