Saddam Hussein wins Palestinians in Jordan, creating unease there WAR IN THE GULF

January 18, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- To the east and to the west, the troubled horizons beyond this hilly city were filled only with clouds throughout the day. Neither the missiles of Iraq nor the warplanes of Israel had come as feared.

The missiles did fly over during the early-morning hours, but the Persian Gulf war already had arrived in Jordan by then with the rising anger and political volatility of the Palestinians who make up 50 percent of the country's population.

Their unease has become almost as troubling to Jordan's monarchy as it has always been to Israel, whose victory in the 1967 war moved many Palestinians across the Jordan River from the West Bank.

By playing to Palestinian discontent, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may be gaining ground politically in the Arab world even as he loses ground militarily.

As far as Palestinian Abu Abdallah is concerned, Mr. Hussein already has won. "He will stand up and fight, whether it is Israel or the United States," Mr. Abdallah said. "We are ready to fight with him. We will fight the Americans if they come."

Mr. Abdallah lives in Baka, the country's largest refugee camp, set in the Jordan Valley northwest of Amman. About 100,000 people, mostly Palestinians, live in Baka's vast, cramped warren of cinder-block huts, hard-packed dirt alleys and narrow paved streets.

At the peak of the business day yesterday, Baka's market streets filled with pedestrians.

But Palestinian politics lately has become one of Baka's most marketable commodities, thanks to Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Hussein helped fan such emotions by adopting the Palestinian cause and proclaiming it one of the reasons he chose to invade Kuwait, though his invasion also pushed Palestinians out of jobs in Kuwait and radically cut funding for Palestinians in the occupied territories.

He also spoke of the cause yesterday morning on Iraqi radio, during his first statement after the attack began. "Palestine and the people of Mecca will be liberated," he said.

So it was that Tuesday, as the clock moved toward the United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war, Baka's citizens were quick to see a link between the deadline and the Monday assassination in Tunis of two Palestine Liberation Organization leaders -- this even though suspicion seemed to center on an Arab feud's being behind the killings.

Such emotions, coupled with the anguish over the U.S.-led air strikes against Iraqi targets, were expected to intensify yesterday at the Amman funeral for the PLO leaders. But the gulf combat caused the cancellation of the flight that was to bring the bodies to Amman from Tunisia.

This latest flush of anti-Western sentiment led government officials yesterday afternoon to cancel passes to Baka for Western media.

Uncertainty about Palestinian reaction to the allied attack also led the Jordanian military to increase security around the U.S. Embassy.

There are also worries within the Jordanian government for its own safety from the Palestinians, according to some officials.

The government went on record as condemning "the brutal attack against Iraq . . . which has throughout history defended the rights of Arabs everywhere."

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