In a bid to rid the country of foreign insurgents, the Iraqi government is using strict new residency rules to detain and expel non-Iraqi Arabs.
Any Arab without the proper permit can be detained, interrogated and asked to leave the country, Interior Ministry officials said. So far the program has swept up mostly Syrians, Sudanese, Saudis and Egyptians, and about 250 people have been asked to leave.
Far more are being detained -- as many as 200 a day in the Baghdad area alone -- although most are released within a few days. Though some are taken in for suspected terrorist activities, others are held with no evidence other than not having proper residency permits under the new rules. Such people can be deported without any evidence of having committed crimes. Although the focus has been on Arabs, a few Chechens and Iranians also have been detained.
“The fact is that some, not all, Arabs and foreigners have destroyed the reputation of Arab and foreign countries in Iraq,” said Brig. Gen. Taif Tariq Hussein, who heads the Interior Ministry’s residency office. “They have either helped in executing sabotage operations or they have carried out sabotage themselves.
“Both Arabs and some foreigners have been harmful to this society,” he said.
The ostensible reason for the policy, established last month after extensive consultations among Iraqi security agencies, is to stem the insurgency. But many Arabs who have lived in Iraq for years fear that they will be lumped in with wrongdoers and deported. Many of these tens of thousands of Arab residents do not have papers that meet the new requirements.
The current Iraqi administration is making no promises, and the incoming government could enforce the rules even more stringently.
For decades, Baghdad had been a magnet for Arabs from other Middle Eastern nations who came for work and study. The new regulations have brought fear to foreign-Arab neighborhoods, some of which have existed for more than a generation.
Many non-Iraqis say they now face a wholesale campaign to make their lives difficult. They are being unfairly harassed by soldiers and police, they say, as well as being taken into custody for what once would have been minor paperwork irregularities.
‘It Is Unfair’
The crackdown has unnerved many longtime foreign Arab residents of Iraq because they enjoyed favored status under Saddam Hussein, in part because the former president was a strong proponent of pan-Arabism, which advocated mutual assistance among Arabs regardless of their countries of origin.
“It is unfair that even those of us who have been here for decades should be treated like this,” said Mustafa Mohammed, 43, a Syrian car mechanic who has been in Iraq since 1984 and who lives and works in the crime-ridden Bataween neighborhood of Baghdad.
Most deeply alarmed are Palestinians, whose community in Iraq numbers more than 30,000, most of them in Baghdad. Many came here in 1948, when the British mandate in Palestine ended and the state of Israel was created.
They married other refugees and had children. Initially they did not become Iraqi citizens because they feared the move would threaten their right to return home. Later, Hussein’s government issued Iraqi travel documents to Palestinians who wished to leave the country, but it refused to give them citizenship, wanting them to remain loyal to the cause of freeing their homeland from Israeli occupation. Hussein offered citizenship to other Arabs who wanted it.
Most Palestinians here have nowhere to go. Their original hometowns are now in Israeli territory or under Israeli control, and Israeli officials have no interest in adding to the burgeoning number of Palestinians in either area. Without residency documents or passports, Palestinians are also unwelcome elsewhere.
Iraq’s deportation policy has been widely publicized in newspapers and through graffiti in some of Baghdad’s central squares. The scrawled messages sound a note of hostility: “Arabs out of Iraq” and “We agree with the government -- Arabs go home.”
The Al Taakhi newspaper, one of Baghdad’s major dailies, carried a headline last week that read, “Life Sentence for the Illegal Arab Residents.” The article quoted an anonymous official from the Interior Ministry saying: “The punishments are strict and will be imposed on the illegal residents. Some may even receive a life sentence.”
The new rules were agreed to after consultations among several Iraqi security agencies.
“We know the neighborhoods where there are these bad people, so we started to make some sweeps,” said residency office director Hussein. “Whoever lacks one of the requirements for residency will be asked to leave the country.”
For those who have lived here for years, the xenophobia is painful. Most Arabs came for work, often with proper papers. But unless they have returned periodically to their native countries to update their passports and renew their Iraqi entry documents, they may no longer have proper legal status.
The new requirements are stiff. A person must have a valid passport or travel document from his or her native country; an entry visa for Iraq; and, if coming for work, a signed contract. The Ministry of Work and Social Security can decide not to honor the contract if the work can be done by an Iraqi. However, anyone married to an Iraqi is exempt.
The rules for non-Iraqis are the same for longtime residents and newcomers.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, jobs for manual laborers were plentiful, especially while native-born men were fighting the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. For a time, for instance, many of the gravediggers were Egyptians, Baghdad natives say.
Relatively few Arabs have come to work in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, in part because of broad disapproval in the Arab world of the subsequent occupation. Some of those who came legally, mainly Kuwaitis and Egyptians, have been attacked by the anti-American insurgents.
In addition to Palestinians, Sudanese Arabs are easy targets of the new regulations, standing out on the Baghdad streets with their darker complexions and lanky frames. Many came here legally to work as manual laborers and stayed on. They are poorly organized and readily intimidated.
Fadlulla Abdullah, 42, came to Iraq 15 years ago, bringing his Sudanese wife and children. So far he has had no trouble because he works for one of Baghdad’s largest hotels. But he views himself as lucky.
“Some of my fellow Sudanese living and working in Iraq have been insulted and badly treated recently by some ING [Iraqi national guard] soldiers,” he said.
“The soldiers are not differentiating between the good guys and the very, very few bad guys,” he said. “There are many Iraqis living in Khartoum [the Sudanese capital]. Let us suppose that a few of them would commit some violations or a crime.... Is it logical that they would all be expelled from Sudan?”
Other Sudanese face uncertainty about whether they will be able to continue to work in Iraq.
“My problem is that the notary public at the court is now refusing to certify my renewed contract with the Kubaysa Construction company,” said Othman Mohammed, 45. “They told me they are still waiting for new instructions from the government regarding residence.”
Palestinians feel particularly vulnerable. They were often hated by Iraqis because they were favored by Saddam Hussein, who used them to justify his anti-Americanism. Most married within the Palestinian community, and despite 30 or more years in Iraq, they have nothing official to show for it.
“By existing law, almost all of them could be deported,” said a senior U.S. official working on Iraqi security issues. “But I don’t think you’re going to see a hard line.”
The U.S. official added that things could get tougher because many Iraqis blame foreigners for the insurgency, though most officials believe that attacks on civilians have largely been carried out by Iraqis.
“If you can’t control the people in your own country, then rightly or wrongly, you look at outsiders, and they are very sensitive if not paranoid about them,” the official said.
That matters little to most Palestinians, who no longer feel at ease in their adopted country.
“We don’t know what is going to happen to us,” said Amer Mahmoud, 39, who was born in Baghdad and used to work in a sewing factory but is now unemployed.
“It is possible they’ll use the new rule to get rid of us, but where will we go? They are going to throw us on the border.... No country will accept us -- even Arab countries will not,” he said as he tightly gripped his 9-year-old daughter’s hand, as if afraid they would be separated.
Already he has come down in the world. As a Palestinian under Hussein, he lived in government-subsidized housing, had a guaranteed job and could attend college for free. Now he and his family are eking out an existence in a refugee camp on the eastern edge of Baghdad.
The many ironies are not lost on the Palestinians. Although they are Arabs, they know they are seen as outsiders. And in this case, that means they are viewed as potential saboteurs of the country that has given them refuge for decades.
“We are getting lost and mixed up with all of these other people. Wherever there is terrorism, they will say it’s Arabs behind it,” Mahmoud said. “If they decide all Arabs have to go, we will have to go and our fates will be tied to theirs.”