Palestinians cheer, bid for chunk of U.S. plane WAR IN THE GULF

February 08, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- On the narrow, crowded streets of the Wihdat Palestinian refugee village, the word passed quickly: The wing of an American jet shot down over Iraq would go on the auction block just after sundown.

Anyone wanting a piece of the action had best be at the recreation hall and bring plenty of dinars.

So, by late yesterday afternoon, that's just where 3,000 men were; shoving, grunting, surging and sweating their way into the smoky hall for a look at the booty of war, fresh from the front.

The wing turned out to be more of a chunk, actually -- a hardened wafer of space-age material roughly 5 feet long, painted olive drab and encased in a wooden box covered with red felt. But no one seemed disappointed. Besides, the auctioneer pointed out, the proceeds would go to the children of Baghdad.

For Ahmad Mahmoud, who, like most in the crowd, went to watch but not bid, only one thing would have made the evening better. "I hope that one day George Bush will be auctioned off up there," he said.

And how much would Mr. Mahmoud bid then? "Nothing. He is notworth anything. If I can get his head, I will pay, but I will torment him first."

Mr. Mahmoud's comments drew a quick laugh from 13-year-old Yasser, who was named for Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. "Even little Arabs are capable of doing that," little Yasser said, grinning mischievously.

Fahed Bayari, president of the Wihdat Social and Sports Club, the sponsor of the auction, got the evening off to a rolling start as he presented the wing piece to the crowd.

"It was destroyed by the Iraqi forces during the mother of battles," Mr. Bayari shouted above the cheers of the crowd. "It was made in New York, shot down in Trebil and, now, auctioned in Jordan, the Arab's Arab nation."

The wing piece, according to members of the club, had been shipped across the border by Iraqi officials in gratitude for a club donation of food for Iraqi children.

Jordan, as a participant in the United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq, is officially opposed to such aid. But four-wheel-drive pickup trucks piloted by veteran Bedouin smugglers have been sneaking across the frontier, according to official sources.

Before the bidding could begin, the sponsors decided to move the event upstairs, to a large, drafty gymnasium that would give the crowd more room. So, the boxed wing piece was carried from the room through the crowd, setting off a new round of rib-crushing human surges as the box, held overhead, passed through like a casket in a sea of frenzied mourners.

The bidding started with a bang, at 1,000 dinars ($1,500).

If this had been an auction conducted in customary fashion, with progressively higher bids, another three or four bids would have ended the evening. But in Wihdat, where the average income is only a few dinars a day, such an approach would have shut out all but a few people. So, bids of any size were allowed.

This created a long night of small bids, many from men scrounging deep in their pockets for wadded bills that would be passed to the front, then stuffed into a 2-foot-high silver trophy that belonged to the club.

Actually the bids were contributions to the cause, and all the money sent up to the front of the room was to be forwarded to Baghdad. The last contributor, or bidder, no matter how much or little offered, would take home the prize.

The only bid to set off any boos was a crumpled U.S. dollar that somehow arrived at the trophy. An Iraqi dinar that showed up a few minutes later drew a loud cheer.

But by the end of three hours, the field had narrowed to two bidders, who went back and forth a few dinars at a time. One was Walid Khalib. The other was a small boy, carried on the shoulders of the crowd and also drawing on their resources as people passed him bills to stay in the running. He was Orayb Darwish, the son of a Palestinian guerrilla.

Then, the auctioneer's microphone went dead. But when the bidding resumed, Mr. Khalib emerged the winner, with his final few dinars bringing the total take to about 20,000 dinars ($30,000). Mr. Khalib, according to others in the crowd, is a Palestinian who until recently had been living in Kuwait.

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