December 20, 2018 / 4:05 PM / in a month

Palestinians in Iraq fearful after loss of Saddam-era privileges

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A year after the Iraqi parliament voted to strip Palestinians of the equal-rights status they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein, Palestinians living in Iraq feel marginalized and vulnerable.

Palestinian refugees play cards at a cafe in the Baladiyat neighbourhood of Baghdad, Iraq December 16, 2018. Picture taken December 16, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Last year parliament rescinded legislation that guaranteed Palestinians rights and privileges enjoyed by Iraqi citizens - from eligibility for state jobs and free education to receiving pensions and food items from a government subsidies programme.

The law had been decreed by Saddam, the longtime strongman president who was executed in 2006 after being ousted three years before by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Many Palestinian families have seen their economic situation deteriorate since parliament’s action - and those interviewed by Reuters were keen to find refuge in other countries - but this was not the start of their difficulties in post-Saddam Iraq.

As predominantly Sunni Muslims, Palestinians have been increasingly viewed with suspicion by Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority, who were at times persecuted under the Sunni Saddam.

Iraqi security forces have carried out repeated raids in search of suspected Sunni Islamist militants among Palestinians living in predominantly Shi’ite areas.

Late one night in 2015, Fawzi al-Madhi’s evening was disrupted by a loud banging on the door. When Madhi, 56, opened the door, a SWAT team knocked him over and searched his flat.

“They grabbed my sons while they were sleeping and tied them up, Madhi’s wife Um Mohammed recalled, wiping tears away. “I was yelling, ‘Leave my sons alone...Leave them alone,’ and suddenly one of them hit me in the arm with their pistol.”

The security forces left after arresting the couple’s two sons Mihad and Abdul Rahman - on what grounds, their father said he still does not know.

ONE SON FREED, OTHER STILL MISSING

Abdul Rahman, now 21, was released 28 days later after what his parents described as torture in custody. “He couldn’t use his hands to eat. I was helping him. I was feeding him with my hand,” Um Mohammed said.

Mihad, 25, did not make it home. More than three years since his detention, his whereabouts remain unknown to his family.

“We still don’t know if our son is dead or still alive. If he’s dead we want his body to get a burial ceremony, and if he’s alive we want to know where he is and why they took him,” said Madhi, seated in his apartment with his wife and young daughter.

Fearing for their lives, Madhi sent Abdul Rahman and another son, Mohammed, 25 - who avoided arrest by staying in the home of a relative - to Turkey a month after Abdul Rahman was released.

PALESTINIANS CAME IN THREE WAVES

Palestinians came in three waves to Iraq: first in 1948 as refugees from the war surrounding Israel’s creation, then in 1967 when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in the 1990s after being expelled by Gulf states at odds with Saddam.

Portraying himself as a defender of the Palestinian cause for statehood, Saddam gave them subsidised housing and the right to work - rare privileges for foreign refugees that bred resentment among many Iraqis.

But worsening conditions since 2003 have forced at least 25,000 Palestinians to flee Iraq, leaving only around 10,000 in the country, said Fouad Hajjo, media and cultural counsellor at the Palestinian embassy in Baghdad.

“If they don’t want us to stay in Iraq, then I want my son back and we will leave,” said Um Mohammed.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Ayman Ahmed, who runs a small watch shop in a Palestinian-inhabited apartment complex in the east of the capital Baghdad, said his life had become increasingly precarious since 2003, replete with threats from unknown persons.

“We want an immediate exit from Iraq to any other country whether an Arab or (other) foreign state. We’re tired and fed up, we’ve run out of patience,” he said in his shop on a narrow dusty road fouled by uncollected garbage and overflowing sewage.

A spokesman for Iraq’s Migration and Displacement Ministry said it hoped to get parliament to restore some benefits for Palestinians including subsidised foodstuffs.

Reporting by Reuters Video News in Baghdad; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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