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  • Iraq Special Report
  •   PLO Leaders Mute Support for Saddam This Time

    By Lee Hockstader
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page A14

    RAMALLAH, West Bank, Feb. 9—In a driving hail storm, a small knot of rowdy Palestinian teenagers demonstrated their support for Iraq and President Saddam Hussein today in the time-honored way -- by holding a lighter to an American flag. No go; the flag was soaked.

    So, with television cameras rolling and everyone dripping wet, they resorted to tearing the flag to pieces.

    It was a soggy reenactment of the larger and more passionate pro-Iraqi demonstrations of 1991, when Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat openly sided with Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War and thousands of Palestinians cheered.

    The fallout from Iraq's defeat in that war took its toll on Palestinians economically and politically. Today, as another showdown in the Persian Gulf looms, many Palestinians still support Saddam Hussein. But this time, their leaders mostly are keeping their heads down.

    The Palestinian leadership's muted response to the latest gulf crisis reflects a new political reality. The 1991 war came in the midst of the intifada, the six-year Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most Palestinians perceived the United States as their enemy, and Saddam Hussein was revered as an Arab leader with the guts to take on Washington.

    Today, four years after Arafat and the late Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, launched a peace process under U.S. auspices, Palestinians have too much to lose by being seen to embrace the Iraqi president. Although negotiations have been stalled for nearly a year, the Palestinians are aware that only Washington has the clout to get the peace process moving again.

    In recent days, as small street rallies in Gaza and the West Bank have captured air time on the evening news, Arafat and his lieutenants have been all but invisible. When they do make an appearance, it is generally to express blandly their support for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a diplomatic solution and to complain that Washington is treating Baghdad unfairly. Generally, Saddam Hussein's name does not pass their lips.

    Although Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO is organizing some of the street protests, Fatah officials have explained almost apologetically that they are merely a way for Palestinians to let off steam. The rallies are a way for Palestinians "to let out their frustrations" over the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a perceived U.S. double standard in dealing with Israel and the Arabs, Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader, told the Associated Press.

    In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, 14 Palestinians were injured Saturday when Israeli troops fired rubber-coated metal bullets at a few hundred demonstrators who attacked them with stones. Today, in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, between 1,000 and 2,000 demonstrators carried posters of Saddam Hussein and Arafat. "Death to Clinton and Blair," read one banner, referring to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has supported President Clinton's Iraqi policy.

    And here in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, about 150 marchers burned U.S., Israeli and British flags and chanted, "With our blood and soul, we will redeem you, Saddam." Demonstrators eluded Palestinian police to throw stones at Israeli troops, who fired rubber-coated bullets to disperse them.

    Although small, the rallies show that Saddam Hussein continues to exercise a hold on the imagination of many Palestinians. In a culture defined by the conviction that it has been victimized by Israel, many people identify with the Iraqi leader as another Arab unjustly abused. If Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, say many Palestinians, well, so does Israel.

    "He's defending himself just as we are; he's not doing anything wrong," said Ramzi Hussein of Ramallah, an aspiring violist in his late teens who wears his hair high and tight and his politics on his sleeve. "It's his country. He can do whatever he wants."

    Other Palestinians said they had no special regard for Saddam Hussein, but nonetheless resented what they regard as Washington's war-mongering. "I don't care if they want to take Saddam out of power, but if you look at it from a humanitarian point of view, people are starving" in Iraq, said a Palestinian who gave his name only as Rob, a thirtyish computer engineer who lives in Arizona and returned to Ramallah to visit.

    Many Palestinians are aware that the current crisis will do nothing to advance the peace process or their aspirations for greater autonomy. First, Clinton's political crisis in Washington seemed to neutralize his attempts to unblock the stalemated negotiations; now, with the administration's gaze focused on Iraq, the problems of the West Bank will have to wait even longer.

    Today, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators headed to Washington for the latest round of peace talks, but given events in the Persian Gulf, little progress was expected by either side.

    Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has used the Palestinians' lingering pro-Iraq sentiment to attack them in the media. "It brings back unpleasant memories, and it shows the need for real acceptance of Israel; that has not sunk in," he said today.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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