- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Saddam Hussein is now toying with the idea of becoming a new Saladin. His mission: liberate Palestine.

He has invited Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority to relocate in Baghdad. The sweetener: One billion dollars (including $10,000 to the family of each Palestinian killed in the intifada). Saddam didn't have to remind Mr. Arafat it was Ariel Sharon's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that forced him out of Beirut the following year.

At that time, Mr. Arafat and the PLO relocated out of harm's way at the other end of the Mediterranean in Tunis. Saddam is now arguing that Mr. Sharon will continue to squeeze and starve Mr. Arafat and his Palestinian government into submission. The Israeli powers that be are openly discussing the possibility of reoccupying the former occupied territories ceded to the Palestinian Authority. So, Saddam tells Mr. Arafat, the better part of valor would be to move out now to Baghdad this time rather than wait for Mr. Sharon's sledgehammer. At best, Mr. Arafat would have to cope with Mr. Sharon's "salami tactics." Mr. Arafat is under mounting pressure from the Israeli siege that has bottled up the West Bank and Gaza and deprived Palestinians of their day jobs in Israel. Mr. Arafat wasn't able to pay his civil servants for two consecutive months.

Saddam claims to have 1 million "volunteers" signed up for the campaign to liberate Palestine. Neighboring Jordan, a country that gets all its oil from Iraq, and whose population is 65 percent Palestinian, is sandwiched between Iraq and Israel. During the Gulf war in 1991, Jordan remained neutral while Mr. Arafat sided openly with Saddam Hussein. In recent days, Saddam has moved thousands of Iraqi troops with vehicles and artillery close to the Jordanian border. This is precisely what the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser did in May 1967 as he rattled his sword and moved some 100,000 troops into the Sinai Desert. He had no intention of invading Israel but Israel pre-empted him on June 5 and destroyed some 450 Egyptian warplanes on the ground in a few minutes. A rerun of the 1967 scenario must have crossed Mr. Sharon's mind. He would then re-emerge as a military hero who cleaned Saddam's clock and finished the 1991 Gulf war with the Iraqi dictator's demise.

The Iraqi dictator presumably believes that in another regional conflict, the Arab streets would side with him and that Arab governments could not afford to stay on the fence. He also knows Israel could duplicate its 1967 feat of a Six-Day War that defeated three Arab countries simultaneously Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But the Arabs have a knack for metamorphosis. They have turned defeat into victory and trounced heroes into superheroes.

Mr. Arafat would have much to lose in such a regional war scenario. To begin with, he would be through as a Palestinian leader. Saddam, like Nasser before him would inherit the mantle. Mr. Arafat has also been promised $1 billion from the Arab Gulf states (so far only $400,000 has been received). If he moved his administration to Baghdad, he would presumably lose that financial pledge in exchange for a still more dubious one from Saddam.

The stakes are enormous and hard-liners on both sides are playing with the fire of a potential regional war.

The anti-Saddam sanctions have virtually collapsed. Iraqi Airways is flying again. International delegations from Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa land at the capital's Saddam International Airport daily. Reservations at Baghdad's Rashid Hotel where visitors have to walk on a mosaic of former President Bush's portrait are hard to come by as Western businessmen flock to the trough. Much of Iraq's 2 million oil barrels per day escapes the U.N.'s oil-for-food program whereby revenues are paid into U.N.-controlled accounts for approved food purchases. Thousands of tanker trucks move through Turkey; low-slung oil barges escape U.S. Navy radar detection and physical interdiction as they hug the Iranian coastline inside territorial waters; and 300,000 barrels a day move from Kirkurk to the Syrian port at Banyas through a refurbished pipeline that is not under U.N. supervision.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, on his recent trip to the Mideast, conceded to his Arab interlocutors the obvious economic sanctions have been overtaken by events. They hurt the Iraqi people but not the regime and its business acolytes. Instead, Mr. Powell proselytized for a strengthening of military sanctions to ensure that Saddam could not proceed with his ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Powell's new focus is on blocking smuggled oil through Syria, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf ports to cut off the funds that Saddam now spends surreptitiously on weapons. The U.S. also wants to tighten border controls to block weapons materials. But Iraq borders on six countries and military contraband traffic would be difficult to interdict. It would also require Iraq's neighbors to do more than talk the talk. So far, only Kuwait is willing to walk the walk.

Some strong voices on the right e.g., Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, a Bush defense adviser during last year's campaign that the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group for Iraqi dissidents and exiles, has a shot at unseating Saddam. In early February, the administration released $4 million for INC. That's barely walking around money for INC. Meanwhile, Saddam is almost back to his pre-Gulf war prestige in the Arab world. And moderate Arab leaders are loath to challenge their own pro-Saddam masses. Besides, even the moderates hold the U.S. responsible for Israel's policies in the occupied territories.

The Iraqi Saladin analogy and a holy war against Israel are not as fanciful as they sound.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and United Press International.

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