In the shifting sands of Arab alliances, it is hard to find instances of enduring relationships. But in a world where raw power struggles and dictatorial jealousies reign sovereign, one alliance stands out for its vitality, durability, and the mutual benefit it accrues to both sides. This rare relationship is Yasser Arafat's partnership with Saddam Hussein.
Fuad Shubaki, Arafat's paymaster, is widely known for forging the PA's relations with Iran. Shubaki, it is recalled, gained notoriety for engineering the $10 million weapons shipment from Iran that was interdicted en route to the territories on the Karine A by IDF naval commandos in January.
What is less widely known is that Arafat's closest adviser has spent much of his time in Baghdad.
When IDF forces entered Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield, among the documents seized from the compound was Shubaki's passport. The passport was stamped with numerous Iraqi entry and exit stamps recording repeated visits by Arafat's closest confidant to Iraq between 2000 and the spring of this year. According to intelligence sources, these visits were an indication of the strategic relationship between Arafat's PA and Saddam Hussein's regime.
This week, following the October 2 arrest of Arafat adviser and member of the PLO's executive committee Rakad Salim in Ramallah, the Shin Bet announced that Salim, as local General Secretary of the Iraqi--sponsored Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), admitted to dispersing some $15m. in direct aid from Saddam Hussein.
In November 2001, Abdel Razak al-Yahya, now touted as the great white hope of Palestinian security reform, was directly implicated with an Iraqi-trained and supplied PLF terror cell. The cell carried out the July 24, 2001 kidnapping and murder of 18-year-old Yuri Gushchin in Jerusalem and the bombing at Haifa's Checkpost junction the same month that injured five Israelis. Members of the cell had been trained in Iraq to use shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, and were planning to carry out a massive terror attack against civilian jetliners at Ben-Gurion Airport when Israeli security forces arrested them in August of last year.
From their interrogations, Israel learned that the cell's weapons had been smuggled into the territories from Jordan through the Allenby Bridge international crossing in Yahya's car.
Shubaki's travel log, Salim's financial transactions, and Yahya's smuggling operation are just the tip of the iceberg of what Israeli intelligence sources explain is a "longstanding strategic relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Saddam Hussein's regime." This relationship was first brought to public attention when Arafat sided with Saddam after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Forces from Arafat's Palestine Liberation Army, organized in Iraq as the Bader Brigade, participated in the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait just as they had fought as a regular unit of the Iraqi army in the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. Some three thousand troops from the Bader Brigade entered the PA in 1994 as part of the PA police.
As PA minister for public works, Azzam al-Ahmed commented in December 1997, to Al-Ayyam, that since the forming of the PA, "contacts between Arafat and Saddam Hussein have not ceased, not even for a moment." Arafat himself owns three villas in Baghdad. One of these homes, a palatial structure in Baghdad's Jadiriya district, serves as the PLO's embassy. Against the backdrop of increasing tensions between UN weapons inspectors and Saddam Hussein in late 1997 - tension that led to their expulsion in March 1998 - reports surfaced of PLO assistance to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs.
Exiled Iraqi intelligence officers informed the UN in September 1997 that documents related to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs were being hidden in the PLO's embassy. As an official legation, the PLO embassy in Baghdad enjoyed diplomatic immunity and was thus off limits to UN inspectors. Iraqi opposition forces told this newspaper at that time that the documents contained information pertaining to Saddam's chemical weapons programs, including Iraq's arsenal of VX nerve gas. The same sources said that in an August 8, 1997 visit to the Iraqi embassy in Amman, Arafat himself met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official.
If these reports are to be believed, they would tend to indicate that not only is Saddam providing Arafat with assistance in his war against Israel, but that Arafat actively assists Saddam in his weapons of mass destruction programs.
Information that surfaced this past April provided additional signs that Arafat's PA is an active partner in Saddam's military--terrorist strategies. Western intelligence sources claimed that senior Iraqi intelligence officials held discussions in Baghdad in March 2002 with an Arafat aide who provided them with a list of strategic sites in Israel and Saudi Arabia that might be attacked in the event of an American campaign against the Iraqi regime. The aide also reportedly provided Iraqi intelligence with 37 blank passports from various Arab countries to be used by Iraqi terrorist operatives.
The IDF's raid on Arafat's Mukata compound in April also uncovered twelve liters of poisonous bromine that had been hidden in a sandbox. Bromine liquid is highly volatile and poisonous if inhaled, even in low concentrations.
Yoav Yitzhak, Ma'ariv's investigative reporter who first unveiled the finding, included a throwaway line in his report musing, "The Palestinians, perhaps with Iraqi inspiration, have begun preparing a chemical arsenal for their war against the Jews."
Unfortunately, according to the London Times, British intelligence is of the opinion that Saddam is planning to use Palestinian operatives to carry out a biological terror attack against the US or Israel in the event of an American--led offensive. A Times report from August 3 sites a Whitehall dossier distributed to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his cabinet members indicating that Saddam plans to use Palestinian terrorists as his proxy force against Israel and the US.
Although an Israeli intelligence source dismisses the report as "far-\-fetched," Israeli intelligence did unearth recently that Palestinian terror operatives were trained in Iraq as recently as this past June. In an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes aired two weeks ago, IDF intelligence officer Ido Hecht told CBS's Lesley Stahl that Palestinian operatives underwent training at an elite Republican Guard base in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit in June. While there, they were trained by Iraqi intelligence personnel in the use of "firearms of various types, RPGs, anti--tank rockets, how to manufacture explosives, how to make these explosives into actual bombs," and in the "use of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, equivalent of the American Stinger, SA-18."
In the IDF's raid of Arafat's compound in April, troops also discovered Iraqi-modified Soviet-made RPGs. The IDF assumes that the weapons were smuggled into the areas in Arafat's helicopter. At the time, defense sources intimated that they saw indications of Iraqi sourced chemical weapons programs being advanced by the PA from Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.
Iraq's overt assistance to the Palestinians has won Saddam Hussein a pride of place in the pantheon of Palestinian heroes. As this newspaper reported this week, Jordan has barred Palestinians from entering the kingdom in order to prevent thousands of Palestinians from crossing into Iraq to fight for Saddam in a war against the US. In a recent opinion poll, the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 79.9% of Palestinians would support Iraq in the event of a US led attack against the regime.
In 1998, during the buildup to Saddam's standoff with UNSCOM inspectors, Palestinians staged mass demonstrations in support of Saddam and against the US throughout the territories. So large and widespread were the demonstrations that Arafat, fearing a US backlash, ordered PA forces to enforce a ban of all such demonstrations and prohibited press coverage of any pro--Iraqi demonstrations in the PA.
Last week, by ordering Israel to transfer NIS 70m. to the PA treasury, the Bush administration showed that there would be no US backlash against Arafat's multi--layered strategic terror alliance with Saddam's regime. The US insistence that Israel enable the CIA--led training of Palestinian security forces in Jericho is further indication that the US sees no relevance to this strategic relationship.
Palestinian sources claim that the NIS 70m., like the previous NIS 140m. Israel transferred in July, is going to pay the salaries of those who Arafat wishes to strengthen in the PA's security forces, including Tanzim fighters and PA bureaucrats close to Arafat. The forces being trained by the CIA in Jericho are supposed to be trusted because they are purportedly under the control of Iraqi arms smuggler (aka Palestinian "reform" minister) Yahya.
By not delegitimizing the PLO, the US is repeating the same mistake the first Bush administration made after the Gulf War. Then, after having struck a blow at Saddam Hussein, the US pressured Israel to reconstitute and embrace Saddam's terrorist proxy. After the Oslo process was launched, the US and Europe funneled billions of dollars into the PLO's coffers and lavished legitimacy on Arafat.
The abject failure of the Oslo process and the regional instability that Arafat's empowerment has unleashed should have led the US to an opposite policy. Today, as the US is poised to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime and husband the emergence of a pro--Western Iraqi quasi--democracy, the US should adopt a similar policy with Iraq's terrorist proxy. Failure to do so may well adversely impact the US's ability to win the war, and will undoubtedly adversely impact the US's ability to achieve the post--war peace it wishes to forge.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post