BAGHDAD — 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.