JERUSALEM, Feb. 27 (JTA) While U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was journeying across the Middle East trying to shore up support for sanctions on Iraq, a look at the West Bank and Gaza Strip could have shown him how popular Saddam Hussein has become to many ordinary Arabs.
And nowhere in the Middle East does Hussein enjoy so much popularity as in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps not even in his own country.
Powell acknowledged in Jerusalem this week that the U.S. was taken by surprise at the intensity of Arab protest at bombings of Iraqi radar sites earlier this month. And, just as they did 10 years ago, the Palestinians set the tone for Arab displeasure.
As Powell shuttled between Middle Eastern capitals, Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets waving Iraqi and Palestinian flags. Through megaphones, they urged Powell to go home “and tell the killer” President Bush “that our people will not kneel and will continue to fight.”
Similar demonstrations were held in Amman and Beirut. Since the 1950s heyday of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, it appears, no leader has managed to focus the Arab masses’ anti-American frenzy as has Saddam Hussein.
Struggling for a decade to throw off United Nations sanctions and defy Western attempts to destroy his military machine, Hussein has found the perfect vehicle in the Palestinians’ “Al-Aksa Intifada.”
While more moderate Arab leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah dampen talk of war, Hussein unfettered by the politesse of an international community that largely shuns him has been trying to whip up Arab support for a broad attack to eradicate the “Zionist entity.”
In a show of force meant to intimidate Israel, Hussein moved troops several times this winter to the border with Syria. Ranks of volunteers were formed to join a jihad against Israel.
Lionized in the Arab world for his missile attacks on Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein threatened to fire a Scud a day on Israel. He urged Arab leaders, who he called too cowardly to take up arms, to make room for his army to pass on the way to liberate Palestine.
Most practically, at a time when the Palestinian Authority is unable to pay salaries and its checks to families of intifada “martyrs” are bouncing, Hussein is diverting funds from his own beleaguered nation to pay $10,000 to the family of each Palestinian killed fighting Israel.
With public support for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat falling one recent opinion poll showed that only 35 percent of Palestinians still support him Hussein is emerging as the Palestinians’ new hero.
Other Arab states have failed to deliver on their pledges of financial support for the Palestinian uprising, primarily because of fears of rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Iraq, however, is believed to have funneled almost $1 billion to the Palestinians.
Hussein also is believed to have supplied the PLO with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank missile launchers and Russian-made anti-aircraft guns. Such grenades struck a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip last week.
In addition, Hussein hosted Arafat advisers in January, ostensibly to discuss Iraqi support for the Palestinian uprising. In fact, according to Jane’s Foreign Report, the real purpose was to explore the possibility of evacuating the senior Palestinian leadership to Baghdad if the conflict with Israel heats up.
Just as the Palestinians need Hussein, so, too, he needs them. Heating up the region serves his purposes, because Arab anger at Israel gives cover to his re-armament efforts.
Just as he did after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when he said he would withdraw his occupation forces only if Israel were forced to evacuate the West Bank and Gaza Strip Hussein is trying to establish a link between his growing standoff with the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This week, for example, Iraqi officials said they would allow U.N. arms inspectors to return to Iraq only if they inspected Israeli facilities as well.
Despite Hussein’s rumblings, most Israeli experts tend to play down the military danger he poses to Israel, at least until he succeeds in developing weapons of mass destruction.
Ironically, the main danger Hussein poses for Israel is diplomatic.
The new American administration warns that Hussein is the “main reason for problems in the Middle East,” and Powell has made containment of Iraq the focus of Bush’s early diplomacy in the region.
Other problematic parts of the Mideast will enjoy less attention than they did in the Clinton administration – – and, perhaps, less tolerance if Israeli-Palestinian violence threatens American efforts to build Arab support for sanctions against Iraq.