PLO, torn by Gulf conflict, sides with leftists and Iran

Palestinian sympathies have moved noticeably toward Iran in the Gulf war. From Morocco to Iraq, the "Palestinian struggle" has been the great united cause of Arabdom since the establishment of Israel in 1948, and especially since formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964.

Every Arab nation has sent money, men, or arms to the PLO or at least has championed "fatah," or its struggle. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has skillfully coaxed or chided the Arab states into supporting the Palestinians against Israel.

But the Gulf war, now entering its second month, is forging major changes of alignment throughout the region. The left-right chasm among Middle Eastern nations is wide open, and the PLO is casting its lot with the left.

"The war definitely has moved us closer to Syria, Algeria, Libya, and South Yemen," which are the more left-leaning Arab states, admits a top PLO spokesman.

"In the spring, with the appearance of what we talked about as the emerging Iraqi- Jordanian-Saudi axis, we wondered where we were going to stand. The war now has forced us to decide. It has polarized everyone."

In an interview this week with the Monitor, the official played down reports that the PLO is going all-out to negotiate settlement of the war in order to stay in the good graces of both Iraq and Iran. Peace is being sought, but the PLO clearly sees Iraq as the aggressor nation and says so.

This has led the PLO to admit privately that it is writing off Iraq. But Iraqi aid, the PLO maintains, did not amount to "peanuts" before the war began.

"What would have been of most benefit to us -- more than money or weapons -- would have been for Saddam Hussein [Iraq's strong man President] to ally Iraq with Syria and forge a united front against Israel. Instead, he split with Syria, plunged into this stupid war, and divided the region," the official said.

Well before war broke out in the Gulf, Iraqi and Iranian agents had been waging a proxy war in Lebanon. Iraqi and Iranian business offices have been bombed in recent weeks. The two embassies, which until recently had been located within several hundred yards of each other, turned into sand-bagged fortresses. Snipers fired from embassy windows.

The PLO often found itself in the middle of this feud. In the past year, says the PLO, 11 assassinations of its supporters could be traced to Iraq. It should be noted, however, that while the PLO favors Iran in the current conflict , the diffuse leadership of Shiite Muslim Iran does not automatically support the PLO.

For example, former foreign minister Sadeq Ghotzbadeh was at odds with the PLO. In the past year, moreover, the PLO has found itself involved in street clashes in southern Lebanon with an Iranian-supported Shiite militia called Amal.

On a diplomatic level, the PLO is vigorously supporting the efforts of the nonaligned conference to settle the Gulf war. But its continuing call for an Iraqi pullback to prewar borders as part of a cease-fire agreement has been flatly rejected by Iraq's Hussein.

Earlier this week, PLO second-in-command Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad , called the PLO-supported peace plan the best option available for ending the war.This plan calls for Iraqi withdrawal and Iraq-Iran negotiations under the supervision of Islamic or nonaligned nations.

"The only other way out is for one of the two countries to defeat the other and impose its conditions, and I don't see that happening," he said.

The war, according to the PLO spokesman and other observers, could go on indefinitely, possibly with a gradual letup in the level of intensity, but with no clear-cut solution. The PLO sees Iran emerging as more united than before the fighting began and Iraq leader Hussein as more in jeopardy.

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