January/February 2001
Western Wall

Billion Dollar Saddam Backs Arafat

by Martin Sieff - February 9, 2001

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is now the main financial supporter and strategic ally of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as both men seek to embroil the wider Arab world in a no-holds-barred jihad, or holy war, with Israel.

In the four and half months since the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, started…Saddam has taken advantage of Iraq's recovering oil exporting wealth to funnel almost a billion dollars to the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank.

Well-placed Middle East intelligence sources have told Western reporters, including UPI, that the total value of the aid already amounts to $980 million in just over one third of a year…

The aid has openly proclaimed to be in the form of food and relief support and in generous compensation payments to the families of the approximately 350 Palestinians killed so far by Israeli forces since the Intifada began. Saddam has been reported as giving the family of each of the dead a cash payment of $12,000 each. During Iraq's 1980-1988 war with neighboring Iran, he prevented popular hardship and resentment from taking any serious form against him by following a similar generous compensation policy to the families of the estimated 100,000 Iraqis killed…

Middle East intelligence sources told UPI that much of the aid that Saddam has already sent to the West Bank had gone to reactivate the Arab Liberation Front, the traditional Iraq-backed Palestinian guerrilla movement. According to some of the sources, Saddam had already succeeded in sending to the Palestinians on the West Bank a limited supply of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank missile launchers and even Russian-made anti-aircraft guns. These reports could not be independently verified. However, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has claimed in a report this year that the Palestinians have succeeded in amassing significant numbers of anti-tank weapons, and other equipment that could be used to inflict significant casualties on Israeli tanks and helicopters in heavy urban fighting.

Such Israeli reports are usually ignored as propaganda by the Western media…But some U.S. experts say this one appears more credible. They note that by December last year, Israel had changed its military tactics in dealing with Intifada riots and dramatically cut back on using U.S.-made and supplied Apache helicopters for riot control. This, the analysts said, appeared to be because the Israelis believed the Palestinians had indeed acquired the capability to destroy Apaches--and probably tanks on the ground--with new weapons they had received. The U.S. analysts said this would also explain the controversial decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak since late last year to start using commando squads to assassinate middle level Intifada leaders...

Israel continues to hold the Jordan River security barrier, supposedly preventing direct overland access between the areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations to the east. However, many Arab experts believe that current level of Israeli security at Jordan River checkpoints is extremely porous and that much other material can be sent across as well after openly and securely being shipped the relatively short distance across Jordan from Iraq.

The landslide election victory…of Israeli nationalist Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon looks certain to be regarded by Arafat as a major step towards this goal. Arafat did everything he could to undermine Sharon's predecessor, rejecting all Barak's desperate attempts to get a last minute peace agreement with frantic concessions.

During the seven years of the Oslo peace process, late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successors were fond of saying that Arafat would always make peace within terms they envisaged because he had no other options, and therefore no where else to go.

But now Arafat does.

In addition to the huge financial--and possible military--support that he has already directly given the Palestinians, Saddam has been working with remarkable success to forge a united, rejectionist front of…Iraq, Syria and Iran. He has already convinced inexperienced young Syrian President Bashar Assad to join him in joint military planning… Saddam now deploys two of his best-armored divisions on the Syrian border, not to threaten Bashar but to support him rapidly in the event of war. Bashar is also working hard to broker military cooperation between Saddam and his old enemy to the east, Syria's closest ally, Iran. Saddam has openly announced his financial aid to the Palestinians and has called on other Arab nations to join with Iraq in a holy war against Israel.

There has been a widespread tendency in the Western media and among U.S. analysts to dismiss these calls as empty rhetoric. But they are not. Arafat and Saddam have a long history of close cooperation. They shared a common enemy in Hafez Assad, president of Syria for 30 years until he died last year. The highly pragmatic, diplomatically skillful Arafat supported Saddam's conquest of Kuwait in 1990. This led a furious Saudi Arabia to cut off financial support to Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. After Kuwait was liberated by a huge U.S.-led military coalition in 1991, it cut off support to the PLO too.

The financial problems this gave the PLO played a major role in Arafat's willingness to enter into secret talks with the then-Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1992-1993, leading to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. However, some Middle East diplomatic sources claim that Arafat cautiously and quietly maintained diplomatic contact with Saddam in the following years…

Since the second intifada erupted on Sept. 28, Israel's military and intelligence chiefs have slowly but steadily upgraded their threat assessments about the danger of war with major Arab nations. The Jerusalem Post…reported in January that after the New Year Barak…instructed the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff to prepare for an outbreak of full regional war.

Israel does not take the threat of a conventional attack by Iraq alone seriously. So overwhelming is Israel's air superiority that Israeli military analysts believe that Saddam's armored divisions could be easily pulverized…But Iraq and Syria have both invested heavily in Scud missiles capable of carrying chemical or even biological warheads. Iraq never allowed the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, to inspect its biological weapons facilities.

Syria is believed to have dozens of poison gas warheads for its own Scud missiles that it would try and use to inflict civilian casualties and disrupt the mobilization of Israel's citizen reserve army in the event of war. Saddam has a behavior pattern now going back 20 years of rashly committing Iraq to war with opponents of far greater resources and military power. He invaded Iran to the east in the fall of 1980, expecting to seize oil rich provinces rapidly and easily. But the war bogged down into a ferocious attrition struggle that lasted eight years and cost half a million lives before it ended with almost no change to the previous borders.

Less than two years later, in August 1990, Saddam conquered Kuwait in another bold and initially successful surprise attack.

But for all their battlefield successes against far more numerous but poorly trained Iranian forces, his army proved no match for the U.S. Army and its allies and was rapidly smashed in the 1991 Gulf War.

©2001 - United Press International
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