Hussein remakes his image in the Arab world

Iraqi leader's doctors treat Palestinians injured in the intifada, and he gives money to their families.

In early October, as graduate student Aladdin Salim hurled stones at Israeli troops during a demonstration in the Gaza Strip, the soldiers fired some sort of explosive ammunition at the back of his legs.

Iraqi surgeons have treated the burly Palestinian, and last Friday, leaning heavily on his cane, he stepped out of a rehabilitation ward at Saddam Medical City to begin his return to Gaza.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has provided free medical care to the Palestinians most severely injured in their four-month-old uprising against Israel, but there is a quid pro quo. The Palestinian patients themselves are the instruments of Mr. Hussein's program for rehabilitating his standing in the Arab world.

In contrast to other Arab leaders, Hussein has backed up tough rhetoric with concrete action in support of the Palestinians. He is reinforcing his image as the lone Arab leader who walks the walk in confronting Israel and the US.

As Hussein works to strengthen ties among Arab nations, his pro-Palestinian stance gives him street credibility among Arabs that no other leader shares. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank increasingly carry Hussein's picture at demonstrations against Israel.

Arab leaders have been unanimous in their denunciations of Israel's reaction to the uprising, or intifada, but some Palestinian officials have complained about a lack of concrete support. Meeting in Cairo last October, the 22-member Arab League established two funds, worth a combined $1 billion, to benefit those injured in the intifada and the families of those killed, and to fund programs aimed at shoring up the Islamic identity of Jerusalem.

The problem for the Palestinians and particularly for the officials of the Palestinian Authority, is that no one has shown them any money. "We have received nothing from the $1 billion in funds that were approved by the Arab League in Cairo," says Sa'di Al-Krunz, minister of industry in the Palestinian Authority.

That is because the funds were never intended to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority, according to Abdurrahman Sehebani, a senior economic official at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. Contributions from Arab-League member states are being deposited at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, while a committee of the Arab League decides how to spend the money.

So far, League members have made pledges totaling $693 million, of which $285 million has actually been committed to the two funds, Mr. Sehebani says.

Iraq did not make pledges to these funds, choosing to offer its support in other ways, and that is a major reason why Hussein stands out. "Iraq is the only Arab country which is sincere in its commitments to support Palestinian people during the intifada and to fulfill these commitments on the ground," says Mr. Al-Krunz.

Like many other countries, Iraq has provided medical assistance to the injured. But an Iraqi-backed party in the Palestinian territories has also made $10,000 grants to the families of every Palestinian killed in the intifada and lesser gifts to those injured.

Hussein is also asking the UN, which oversees Iraq's oil sales in order to fund humanitarian programs here, to spend 1 billion euros ($940 million) to help the Palestinians instead. Britain and the US, the chief enforcers of a decade-old embargo of Iraq, have refused, saying the oil money should benefit Iraqis.

Hussein has even offered to attack Israel if an Arab country would simply offer his troops adequate space on one of Israel's borders. At various times in the past four months, he has moved troops close to Iraq's border with Syria, where they would presumably be available to assist if a confrontation with Israel occurred.

Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington, says these threats should not be taken too seriously. "It's rhetoric; it's PR," she says. "It shows he's the only Arab leader willing to stand up and fight the US and Israel."

For one thing, an attack on Israel would inevitably disclose Iraq's military capabilities - exactly the thing Hussein has been shielding from UN inspectors since the end of the Gulf War.

Iraq has long been an enemy of Israel - the country has never signed a cease-fire with the Jewish state - but the Gulf War banded Palestinians and Iraq more tightly together. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat chose to support Hussein instead of the US-led coalition that came together to evict Iraqi invaders from Kuwait.

Many Palestinians cheered when Iraq fired Scud missiles into Israel during the war, elated that an Arab leader was confronting Israel militarily for the first time in nearly two decades.

This shared history is on display in the Palestinians' ward in Baghdad. The patients' rooms feature a framed picture of Mr. Arafat and Hussein - both in military uniform - striking a cheery, victorious pose.

The sense that Palestinians and Iraqis share a common enemy is palpable in the ward, and that enemy isn't necessarily Israel. Salim, a postgraduate student in microbiology, decries the US role here and in his homeland. The Israeli weapons say "Made in the USA," he asserts. "How can those people who ... give weapons to Israel make the peace?" And he has a question about the US-led embargo of Iraq: "How are the children of Iraq guilty that they should suffer under sanctions for 10 years?"

Philip Smucker contributed to this report from Cairo.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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