BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) – The wealthy Arab man, sporting a foreign accent, has just given an Iraqi teenager some cash and a bomb when police burst in and arrest him. “You come here from abroad and want to make this young man kill his Iraqi brothers?” an officer asks.
The television ad, widely aired across Iraq in recent weeks and meant to encourage Iraqis to report suspicious behavior to police, is a startling example of a new strain of anger and discrimination against foreign Arabs in this Arab-majority country.
Suspicion toward foreign Arabs stems, in part, from the fact that the Sunni-led insurgency has included many foreign fighters, most of them Arabs, who are blamed for deadly attacks that have claimed thousands of Iraqi lives.
Foreign Arabs who live in Iraq often try to hide their identities by faking an Iraqi accent or staying silent. Iraqis are usually suspicious when they hear a person speaking Arabic with a non-Iraqi accent.
An Associated Press reporter riding a public bus last month heard one of the passengers telling the driver in conversational Egyptian Arabic to drop him at a stop. After the man, carrying a bag, left the bus, Iraqis began arguing with the driver about why he had let the man on. Several passengers searched the seat where the man had been sitting to make sure he had not left a bomb.
The suspicions have shown up in official pronouncements from the Arab Shiite Muslim-led government of Iraq, too.
After a suicide truck bomb killed more than 132 people and wounded hundreds in a Baghdad market a few weeks ago, the head of the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry’s explosives department, Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jabiri, told state-run Iraqi television: “I call on the government to deport (foreign) Arabs immediately.”
Hit by violence from all sides, it is perhaps not surprising that many Shiite Muslim Arabs here have begun showing widespread suspicion of foreign Arabs, who are often from Sunni Muslim countries. Iraq’s Shiite-led government is close to Iran, a non-Arab Shiite Muslim country.
But the discrimination is a troubling sign of just how suspicious Iraqis have become of outsiders as sectarian violence has divided people into camps.
The resentment toward foreign Arabs also has increased regional tensions between Iraq and some of its neighbors, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who already are wary of how Shiite leaders are running Iraq.
A day after the Interior Ministry general asked for Arabs’ deportation, some Shiite members of parliament echoed the call. That led to a dispute after the parliament speaker, a Sunni Arab, retorted that both Arabs “and others” should be deported — a reference to Iranians. Many Sunnis here fear Iranians are infiltrating Iraq.
Iraqi authorities in recent months also have prevented anyone who holds an Arab-country passport from entering the country without first gaining a security approval that is almost impossible to get.
This measure comes after both Iraqi and U.S. officials have cited instances of Saudi, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Libyan fighters joining the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The Iraqi government has tended to blame the insurgency more on foreign fighters than on Iraqis who are Saddam Hussein loyalists.
The most infamous Arab foreign fighter was Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq group, who was killed by U.S. forces last summer. Another foreign Arab, an Egyptian, took his place after he died, his group said.
Some of the resentment toward foreign Arabs stems from another factor, though — Saddam’s longtime preferential treatment toward Palestinians until he was ousted in the 2003 invasion.
Saddam lavished large cash payments on Palestinian suicide bombers in the 1990s, when Iraq faced crippling economic sanctions and many Iraqis were jobless. That caused Iraqis to feel strong resentment toward Palestinians and other Arabs who came to work in Iraq. Palestinians have left in large numbers since the 2003 invasion, because of widespread anger toward them here.
Sabah Abdul-Wahed, a 35-year-old Shiite Muslim cashier at a restaurant in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, said he can’t help feeling resentment toward foreign Arabs who live in Iraq.
“They had more privileges than Iraqis, and under Saddam they had better lives than ours,” he said. “I don’t mean all Arabs but many of them … Their governments don’t like Iraqis. In the past, they liked Iraqi money.”