Vol. 1, No. 18 February 6, 2002
Both Iraq and Iran would have a difficult time projecting their influence in the Arab-Israeli sector of the Middle East, if Yasser Arafat was not seeking to draw them into his conflict with Israel and, thereby, jeopardize regional stability.
Speaking to his Knesset faction on February 4, 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon detailed the continuing efforts of the Palestinian Authority to smuggle weaponry into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But rather than focusing on Iran’s well-publicized role in the Palestinians’ military buildup after the Israeli capture of the Karine-A weapons ship in the Red Sea, Sharon made specific mention of Iraq (Yediot Ahronot, February 5, 2002).
In fact, there has been increasing evidence of new and expanding links between Iraq and the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat:
Fuad Shubaki, the senior financial advisor to Yasser Arafat who played a central role in the Karine-A affair, recently paid a secret visit to Baghdad where he met with high-level Iraqi officials. The Iraqis committed themselves to supply the Palestinians with large amounts of weaponry, at no charge (Ma’ariv, January 16, 2002).
Iraq has been transferring significant funds to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to assist the families of suicide bombers and increase its general influence. Families have earned from $5,000 to $15,000 for each martyred son. According to the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Major-General Amos Malka, these funds have been distributed by a local pro-Iraqi organization, the Arab Liberation Front (Jerusalem Post, January 31, 2001). Iraq has engaged in humanitarian assistance as well. Back in December 2000, Iraq asked Palestinian officials to prepare a list of their general needs so that Baghdad could include these items in the list of purchases that it submitted to the UN, using its oil-for-food program (CNN, December 19, 2000).
Yasser Arafat personally turned to Saddam Hussein to ask for Iraqi assistance in the struggle against Israel. According to the Iraqi News Agency, Arafat’s request was brought to Baghdad by an unnamed minister in the Palestinian Authority (Ma’ariv, January 24, 2002).
Last fall, Israeli security services cracked a 15-man terrorist cell in the West Bank belonging to the Iraqi-based Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) of Abul Abbas. The PLF is a member organization in the PLO that was responsible for the 1985 hijacking of the Achillo Lauro cruise ship. Its terrorist operations against Israel on May 30, 1990, forced an end to the first U.S.-PLO dialogue. The recently captured PLF unit was actually trained by Iraqi officers at the al-Quds military camp outside of Baghdad and enjoyed close ties with Iraqi intelligence. PLF weaponry had been smuggled in a vehicle belonging to PA Security Chief General Abdul Razek Yehiye, who had benefited from immunity at Israeli checkpoints with his VIP pass (“How Arafat’s Palestinian Authority Became an ‘Entity Supporting Terrorism,'” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 1, No. 11).
Past Iraqi Involvement in Middle Eastern Wars and Connections with the Palestinians
Iraq has been extensively involved in the Arab-Israel conflict since 1948. Iraqi expeditionary forces, consisting of about one-third of the total Iraqi order-of-battle, crossed Jordanian territory in 1948 and 1967. In 1973, the Iraqi army crossed Syria and fought Israel in the Golan Heights. Iraqi al-Hussein missiles struck Israeli cities in the 1991 Gulf War.
Arafat fully backed Saddam Hussein in 1990, even after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Despite the difficulties this caused him with the U.S. and Gulf states, he maintained extensive ties with Saddam Hussein even after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Thus, Palestinian Authority Minister of Public Works ‘Azzam al-Ahmad commented in 1997: “Contacts between Arafat and Saddam Hussein have not ceased, not even for a moment” (Al-Ayyam, December 5, 1997; MEMRI, February 4, 1998). Palestinian envoys were dispatched to Baghdad. Arafat, himself, denounced UN sanctions against Iraq in a speech at the Islamic Summit in Teheran in December 1997. After the outbreak of the current intifada in October 2000, Iraq dispatched five divisions to its joint border with Syria and Jordan, signaling its continuing interest in the Palestinian issue.
Which is Worse — Iran or Iraq?
Yasser Arafat appears to be preserving close ties with different regional powers — Egypt, Iraq, and Iran — benefiting from their competition for influence over the Palestinian question. Until recently, Iraq stood out as the most dangerous regional partner of the Palestinians, given its historic geo-strategic involvement in past Arab-Israeli wars that has included the commitment of significant ground forces. Iran’s primary challenge to Israel comes from its ballistic missile and nuclear programs as well as from its support for the terrorism of Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. But it could still be assumed that Iran’s real priorities lay elsewhere: in the Gulf region and in Central Asia.
Yet with the Iranian deployment of Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, armed with thousands of short-range rockets aimed at northern Israel, the Iranian threat is looking even more formidable. Given Iran’s efforts to penetrate the Palestinian Authority and supply large amounts of weaponry, Iran seems determined to escalate its struggle against Israel. Still, it would be a mistake to identify either Iran or Iraq as a greater danger than the other. Both states have hegemonial ambitions in the Middle East. Both states are determined to exploit the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, initiated and directed by Yasser Arafat, for their own strategic purposes. But without Arafat’s willingness to draw them into his conflict with Israel, they would have a difficult time projecting their influence across the Middle East.