BAGHDAD — The roads are strewn with trash, and sewage fills the gutters in Baghdad's Baladiyat district, which for decades has been home to Iraq's biggest Palestinian community. Banned from holding Iraqi citizenship, even if they were born here, Palestinians lost some of the few rights they had after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and have lived in fear of Iraqi groups who seek revenge for the Palestinians' perceived connection to the old regime.
Now they feel even more alone, as they watch Arab satellite-television news about the fighting in Gaza, which has killed nearly 1,000 Palestinians, among them more than 200 children. They know Palestinians aren't wanted in Iraq, either.
"All of my life I have had no passport, no ID, and I'm sitting here living on barakat (blessings)," said Huda Saleh, 39, who runs a small Palestinian children's club.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's public denunciation of the "major crimes against the Palestinian people in Gaza" evoked a bitter laugh from Saleh as she riffled through pictures of Palestinians thought to have been killed by Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias and National Police commandoes during the height of sectarian violence.
"When Maliki talks about Gaza, I ask, 'What are you doing to us?' " she said. "When Iran talks about Gaza, I think, 'Who killed us? Wasn't it your people?' " she asked, referring to Iraqi Shiite militias supported by Iran who targeted them for their supposed allegiance to Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. "God created us to be beaten, and wherever we go we're abused."
Palestinians received some protections under Saddam's regime, and many Iraqis now refer to them as "Saddam's orphans."
Saleh was born and raised in Iraq. Her family had fled a village near Haifa in 1948, the year Israel was created. An Iraqi army unit invited some 5,000 families who'd been forced from their village to come to Iraq, taking them in until there was a "free Palestine." Sixty years later, they're still waiting.
The recent past has been especially bitter for them. During the worst of Iraq's bloodshed in 2006 and 2007, more than 600 Palestinian men were killed or disappeared. Photos of the dead and missing are kept inside a gray filing cabinet in the community club's kindergarten, near the plastic swing sets and stuffed animals.
"You are Palestinian. Iraq is for Iraqis only," residents recalled militia members and Iraqi police commandos screaming outside their complex in 2007.
Mortar attacks were common, and their homes became self-imposed prisons.
The number of Palestinians in Iraq is down from 34,000 before the war to some 10,000 today, mostly in Baladiyat. Many escaped on counterfeit passports to replace the defunct Palestinian travel documents from the old regime.
Another 3,000 live in limbo in no man's land in three camps between the Syrian and Iraqi borders, a people dispossessed.
Iraqi Palestinians chafe at the discrimination. They're still harassed or detained at checkpoints, and as of late last year they must carry special documents: laminated Identification cards that identify them as Palestinian refugees. They're excluded from government jobs, and many of them complain that they're blackballed from university programs.
Qutaiba, 35, who lives in Baladiyat, rarely leaves the compound except for his daily trips to work, where he builds chandeliers at a Baghdad factory. As a Palestinian, he fears sharing his last name. He said that he and four Palestinian friends weren't admitted into a master's program at Baghdad University because of their roots.
He produces a fake Iraqi passport at checkpoints instead of the new Palestinian refugee identification card.
As he spoke about his plight under a framed picture of an old broken man carrying Jerusalem on his back, music played at a protest inside their fenced complex.
"All our roads are blocked/ Our lives spent in tents/ Sardine cans, in the cold/ In exile we sleep/ They think we have forgotten," the song went. "But we emerge as men from the tents."
The walls of the compound were covered with graffiti: "Gaza under fire" or "Palestine, Palestine free and Arab."
Men in the camps call Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, Hosni Barak, likening him to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. They blame him for not denouncing the Israeli bombardment and for not letting Palestinians cross into Egypt to escape the violence.
Most Palestinians are too frightened to head to Iraqi hospitals, and they can't leave the country for treatment. Those who do change their accents to pass as Iraqis. Four children have died in the last month after applying to leave for medical help.
On a recent visit to the camp it was Waleed, 9, whom a mother mourned. He suffered from muscular dystrophy, and by the end of his life he was on a feeding tube.
"He died of neglect," said his mother, Harbiaa Shafiq Ali. "Waleed is gone, but no one asks about the Palestinians, and other mothers need help with their children."
Outside the compound, Jouman Ziad lives an invisible existence in east Baghdad in order not to draw attention. Outside her home, she only whispers "Palestinian," as if it were a dirty word. At work she lies about who she is; she replaces the softer tone of her Palestinian accent with the harsher guttural sound of Iraqi Arabic. This way, there are no problems.
At work, some who are angry at the Palestinians for their perceived connection to Saddam have said things when they watch the news such as "They deserve it," or "See? Maliki, God bless him, made a good statement despite what the Palestinians did to us."
She says nothing and comes home to cry.
"The worst thing in the world is when someone asks you about your identity and you have to deny it, and cancel your accent," she said, stopping to cry, then composing the jovial face that she puts on. "Some of them cry for us, but in 60 years it has all just been words."
Ziad was born and raised in Iraq, but will never be Iraqi.
"The dream of every Palestinian is to have a passport, whether it's a Palestinian passport or something else," she said. "We just want a passport, where someone will look at it and say come in."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008