By Deepa Babington
HADID, Iraq (Reuters) - Among the millions of impoverished Iraqis, Jameel Mahmoud Hassan has the dubious distinction of being among the poorest of all.
One of a group of Iraqi Gypsies who have squatted for years on a fetid patch of land in a village north of Baghdad, he has spent his life in squalor, and now fear.
Home is nothing more than a leaky tent strung up with sticks and torn carpet on a plot strewn with dirty plastic bags, rusted cans and broken bottles.
A stack of kerosene cans with mud on top serves as a makeshift oven. Flies swirl everywhere -- on garbage, on the giggling children, on a dog tethered to a tree.
Inside the tent, his wife and five children, their ragged clothes caked with dirt, crowd on to carpets and a small cot. A kerosene lamp is the only source of warmth on a chilly winter morning.
A meal of tomatoes, cucumbers and beans is the typical fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meat is a rare treat every few weeks.
More recently, Hassan has worried about being rounded up and forced to move elsewhere by religious militia.
"We have nothing," he says. "We are poor. We're just looking for a safe place to hide."
Scorned by religious Muslims and barely tolerated by the rest of society, Iraq's Gypsies have a precarious existence. Lacking education or skills, they form one of the lower rungs of Iraq's social system.
Yet the Gypsies of Hadid village near Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, may be among the luckier ones in Iraq. Other Gypsy tribes have been hunted down and attacked by increasingly powerful Islamist militias who see them as a blot on society.
Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, Gypsies had some protection from persecution -- partly in exchange for supplying dancers, alcohol and prostitutes, Iraqis say. The safety net disappeared with Saddam's overthrow, leaving them open to the whims of religious militia groups contemptuous of their freewheeling ways.
A tribe of about 250 Gypsy families living in a village near the southern city of Diwaniya was one of many that learned about the wrath of religious groups at first hand.
On New Year's Day last year, mortar rounds landed on their village of mud and reed huts, killing a woman and wounding three others.
Convinced they were being attacked by the powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army, they fled at night before seeking help from religious leaders.
They returned after aides to Sadr and Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, promised they would no longer be bothered, only to find their village had been ransacked.
The primary school and clinic built by Saddam's government had been rendered useless. Their houses were wrecked.
The poverty they believed was behind them had returned.
"The religious parties have tortured us," said Bizai al- Baroodi, the tribe's sheikh. "We had reached a decent stage of living but after the last attack, we've had to start from scratch."
The pain of the assault still rankles with Maiyada al-Tamimi, a 20-year old Gypsy woman. A mortar hit her house, killing her mother, and breaking her arm which she says has yet to be treated.
"If I get a clean and honest job, I will not hesitate to leave this tomb and live like any other girl my age," al-Tamimi said.
Like other Iraqi Gypsies, many in her tribe are angry they are being forced to live as fugitives in their own land.
The tribe says it traces its roots to Spain and made Iraq its home more than 150 years ago. Most of Iraq's Gypsies originated in India, while a few came from other Middle Eastern countries.
Although they speak Arabic and profess belief in Islam, their dark complexions and sharp facial features are distinctive and they complain of racial persecution:
"We are Muslims and humans; we have Iraqi citizenship," al-Baroodi said. "We just want to live in peace."
(Additional reporting by Imad al-Kuzai in Diwaniya and Aseel Kami in Baghdad)
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