DAMASCUS, SYRIA, JAN. 25 -- George Habash, the Palestinian leader who a generation ago pioneered hijacking commercial airliners to focus world attention on the Palestinian cause, today called for violent attacks against United States, British and French military targets.
But he made clear that such a resort to violence was not the most effective weapon at his disposal to aid the Palestinians. "The best way to help our cause and to help Iraq is to escalate the intifada," he said, referring to the three-year-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The 65-year-old leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small but influential Marxist faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in an interview that he hoped that all Palestinian organizations will "differentiate between killing civilians," which he rejected, and legitimate "attacks on military targets" outside Israel and the occupied territories.
Habash, a physician who founded his radical group in the late 1960s, made his comments today here in Damascus, where his group is headquartered, despite Syria's participation in the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition. Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose own government has been accused of terrorism, has sent troops to help defend Saudi Arabia although they are not involved in attacks on Iraq and occupied Kuwait.
Habash's comments underscored the divisions in the Arab world over the war against Iraq. A number of other Arab nations, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are members of the 28-nation coalition opposing Iraq, while many Palestinians and Arabs support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Habash's criticism of the coalition was not expected to cause him difficulty here because Syrian authorities apparently prefer to turn a blind eye to such remarks rather than cause an open break with him now. Damascus also controls the domestic media and will not allow Habash's remarks to be disseminated inside Syria.
In the interview, Habash said his group would strike "especially Americans, with the British number two and the French number three."
"We are in a state of war," he said, but added, "I hope that all Palestinian organizations and individuals will be restrained and make this distinction" between civilian and military targets.
Habash, whose right hand is paralyzed from a stroke, made clear he could not speak for other groups or individuals, adding, "I do not want any bad effects for my cause." He also conceded that "individual acts" of terrorism "can be self-defeating."
Without admitting that his group's airliner hijackings may have set back the Palestinian cause by raising international political opposition to the PLO, Habash noted that he ordered them stopped in 1972.
He said the hijackings were designed to attract international attention to the cause of Palestinian nationalism "because Israel had succeeded in erasing Palestinian identity. When our aim was achieved, we stopped."
His support for Iraq, he hinted, partly reflected Saddam's linkage of the Persian Gulf crisis to a resolution of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Asked if Saddam's record of brutality made him a difficult leader to admire, Habash replied, "If Saddam Hussein will win this war and achieve something for the Palestinian cause, this will totally change his image."
Like many other Arabs, Habash said that when Iraqi Scud missiles started landing last week on Israel, "I said, 'Thank the Lord, bravo, Saddam' " because "for the first time an Arab army was bombarding the capital of a country which has tortured and massacred our people for 42 years."
He said he had hopes that the anti-war movement in the United States and Europe -- along with support from China, the Non-Aligned Movement and perhaps the Soviet Union -- could force a cease-fire and political settlement, which he said would amount to an Iraqi victory. He predicted a long war if there is no cease-fire.