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May 07, 2003

On the Road Again

Iraqis reclaim homes from Palestinian refugees

Some of these poor Palestinains sorely miss the handouts for killing Israelis that were part of Saddam's welfare program!
After nearly a lifetime, Ahmed Issa is a refugee again.

Just a child when his parents arrived in Iraq from what was called Palestine in 1948, the former sweets maker has relied on charity of the Iraqi government, which gave him and thousands of other Palestinian refugees free housing and other benefits.

The subsidies never lifted them above poverty, yet were enough to make a life in an adopted country.

Saddam Hussein forced thousands of mostly poor Iraqis to give up their homes to Palestinians. And now, since Baghdad fell to U.S. forces April 9, hundreds of Iraqis who have waited a generation to reclaim homes commandeered by Saddam's Baath party, have begun knocking on their old doors, some with assault rifles in hand, to evict Palestinians with no place else to go.

As a result, Issa has taken up residence in a former Baath party building in a Baghdad neighborhood of brick apartment buildings and trash-strewn streets that is the center of the Palestinian diaspora in Iraq.

The building was once a high school; the room Issa shares with his wife and four grown children was a classroom.

A tent city has sprung up on a soccer field four blocks away to accommodate 285 other Palestinian families who have lost homes in a month of score-settling with the Baath government. About 1,000 Palestinians in all have lost their homes.

"Iraqis always envied us because they heard Saddam was helping us, was protecting us, was paying for us," Issa said. "It was really nothing, just a speech."

Many Arab leaders welcomed Palestinians after the creation of Israel in 1948, extending them charity and speaking out internationally on their behalf.

Saddam, whose pan-Arab-nationalist Baath party took over in 1968, did more, casting himself as an example in the Arab world, creating a civilian militia he said was dedicated to retaking Jerusalem and harboring at least two Palestinians the United States considered to be terrorists.

During the current uprising against Israel, he funneled payments to the families of Palestinians killed in the violence, including suicide bombers.

"He used the Palestinians for his own political purposes, and they are as a result associated with Saddam's rule," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"The coalition as the occupying force is responsible for the protection of the civilian population, and this goes for the Palestinians," he said. "The problem is the Palestinians have no place to go. No one wants to take them."

Many Palestinians settled here in homes built under Abdul Karim Kasim, an army officer who overthrew the monarchy in 1958. Those accommodations changed after the Baath party took power and began making Iraqis an offer they could not safely refuse: give up homes to Palestinians in return for paltry rents from the government.

There are no precise figures on how many Palestinians live in Iraq; estimates range from 40,000 to twice that, most of whom live in Baghdad.

Nearly all are sons and daughters of the original Palestinian refugees. Khalid Yusef Moussa, 40, a house painter, is one.

Moussa, his wife and four small children share a tent on a soccer field since his home's former owner knocked on his door in the New Baghdad neighborhood a day after U.S. troops entered the city. They asked him to leave immediately. Moussa had lived there for 13 years.

"I blame America," he said. "At least Saddam gave us a home, some security. I am hoping to leave this place now and head back to Palestine."