1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Settling secretly with Saddam?By Salah Hemeid
Few things are more likely to stir up denials and protests from Iraqi officials than reports of their alleged contacts with Israelis. Typically, the Iraqi regime responds to such reports by directing harsh language at the state which they call the "Zionist entity." However, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's reaction to a report last week in the London newspaper The Observer about renewed Iraqi-Israeli secret talks was relatively subdued as it was limited to his calling Israel Iraq's "arch-enemy."
The Observer's report details four rounds of secret talks which it alleged were held between Iraqi and Israeli officials or their intermediaries during the last 15 months. It said that these talks were aimed at reaching a deal under which Israel would help to end Iraq's political isolation in return for its settlement of some 300,000 Palestinian refugees.
Although such allegations have been made before, the British paper quoted unidentified officials in Washington, London, Amman and Jerusalem as saying that the last round of the talks was significant because they discussed the logistics for transporting Palestinian refugees by plane from Lebanon to Iraq.
Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, reports of similar discussions have surfaced periodically. Allegations of such negotiations suggest that these link the end of the Iraqi impasse with Baghdad's agreement to normalise relations with Israel and settle Palestinian refugees in Iraq. But with the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon last week and the possibility that Israel and the Palestinians might reach a final status peace agreement soon, renewed reports of an Iraqi-Israeli deal made some analysts believe that the contacts might be getting somewhere.
Indeed, there are some visible signs which support the claims that Iraq might be ready to accept the Palestinians and is even starting preparations for their settlement. Earlier this year, Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council passed a law making it legal for Palestinians to own land and property in Iraq -- a radical departure from Iraq's traditional policies of discouraging settlement of Palestinian refugees outside Palestine. This decision was followed by a decree by the Iraqi president which eases visa requirements for Arabs visiting Iraq. This contrasts dramatically with the strict regulations imposed after the Gulf War.
Palestinian sources in Amman told Al-Ahram Weekly that some 30,000 refugees from Jordan and Lebanon have already travelled to Iraq during the last few weeks and many of these are seeking permanent residence.
Such moves are alarming for Kurds in northern Iraq who claim that the government in Baghdad has launched a campaign to expel ethnic Kurds and Turks from their homes in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in favour of settling Palestinian families. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, the self-declared Kurdistan Regional Government complained that Baghdad has given Palestinians land seized from Kurdish farmers after deporting them to the autonomous Kurdish enclave. Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) sent a similar letter to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, complaining that such an action is directed towards changing the ethnic character of the region.
In the south, Iraqi Shi'ites have also expressed concerns that a land reclamation project in the region's marshes and changes in the borders of the southern province are aimed at creating administrative units for new towns on the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Such changes will, they argue, create a belt surrounding the indigenous Shi'ite population. Shi'ite leaders in exile say the settlement of the Palestinians, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, is clearly aimed at changing the sectarian makeup of southern Iraq. They insist that such a move will be strongly resisted by Iraqi Shi'ites who currently make some 60 per cent of the country's population.
So far, the Palestinian leadership has taken no official stance on reports regarding settling the refugees in Iraq other than reiterating its well-known position that the problem of all the Palestinian refugees should be solved within the framework of a final status agreement with Israel. From the Palestinian point of view, this should be according to UN Security Council Resolution 194, which calls for either the return of the Palestinians dispersed by the 1948 war to their homes or their financial compensation. Israel categorically rejects a Palestinian "right of return."
While political and historic conditions make the absorption of Palestinian refugees somewhat feasible in Jordan and Syria, Lebanon, the third largest host country, has unequivocally rejected settling Palestinians. Lebanon's decision is due in large part to its sectarian makeup and the potential impact the settlement of Palestinians might have on its political stability.
For its part, the United States is reportedly in favour of a formula that will end Iraq's isolation politically and economically following the conclusion of a final peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbours. According to some reports, the staff of US congressmen who visited Baghdad last summer discussed the proposal of settling the Palestinian refugees with Saddam's younger son Qusai, who is considered to be among the most powerful men in the country. US experts on Iraqi affairs have also suggested in recent studies that Iraq's agreement to settle Palestinian refugees is a key condition in order to end its isolation, after disarmament and accepting direct UN monitoring of its weapons' programmes. Notably, these three conditions all serve Israel's interests, a goal which the world's superpower has set as a cornerstone for its policy in the region.