Wielding terrorist hammer, Abbas watches and waits Impatient, he says, with peace process

July 02, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Mohammad Abu Abbas, one of the world's most notorious guerrilla leaders, crossed his legs, sucked on a slow-burning cigar and talked about how his patience was running thin.

"For two years, since the peace process began in Madrid, we have had the patience to stay calm and not take military actions," he said, relaxing in his headquarters beneath a photograph of his 6-year-old son and a poster of Palestinian guerrillas who posed before setting off to attack a crowded Tel Aviv beach in 1990.

"But our patience will finish. We gave everything to this peace process. We relinquished many principles.

"If the situation continues, we will have to be active militarily," he said. "To make the whole world remember we are here and we have our cause."

The world has not forgotten Mr. Abbas' most infamous exploits.

It was guerrillas from his radical Palestinian Liberation Front who hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro on the Mediterranean Sea in 1985 and killed wheelchair-bound American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. It was his men who rammed speedboats onto a crowded Israeli beach in 1990, in a thwarted attack that left four of the Palestinians dead. That attack prompted the United States to break off all official contacts and dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Abbas' Palestinian Liberation Front has long been considered by Western governments as one of the leading terrorist organizations to have taken sanctuary in Iraq. He came here from Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982, and many of his fighters also came here after their training camps in Libya were shut down.

In August 1990, just after the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, Mr. Abbas issued a proclamation ordering his men to attack U.S. interests around the world, in general, and U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia in particular. "Open fire on the American enemy everywhere," he declared. It is not for nothing that Mr. Abbas has been called "Mr. Disaster." His fighters have soared into Israel on hang-gliders that crashed and hijacked a cruise ship instead of landing in Ashdod port as planned: "An accident," he called the Achille Lauro hijacking.

But Mr. Abbas says he has no regret for the acts, however botched.

He is now 44, with a middle-aged paunch. There are shades of gray in his mustache, which stops just short of a scar running down the left side of his chin.

He has three children and employs a business manager to tend to the accounting from the businesses his financially strapped guerrilla group owns. The entrance to his Baghdad office is protected by men carrying Kalashnikov rifles. A new Mercedes-Benz is parked outside.

Nowadays, Mr. Abbas is neither fully engaged nor completely disassociated from politics and the business of running what he calls "military operations" and what much of the West calls terrorism. He has resigned from the Palestinian National Congress' executive committee, but a subordinate Palestinian Liberation Front member has taken his place.

In an interview with two Western reporters yesterday, he sounded alternately mellow and coy, insisting he wants peace while holding out the possibility of resuming attacks on Western targets.

He expressed support for the Saddam Hussein's regime and accused the Clinton administration of "terrorism" for last weekend's missile attack on Baghdad. But he also said he respects the United States and its role as world superpower, sounding much like a disillusioned Democrat as he described a mixture of disappointment and wan hope in the new American president.

Mr. Abbas said his Iraqi patron has not asked him to attack U.S. targets in the wake of the surprise U.S. raid directed at the secret intelligence headquarters.

"I don't think they will ask us," he said. "They want to break the embargo politically."

But he clearly feels a political debt to Saddam Hussein for offering his organization a haven in Baghdad.

"We are with the Iraqi people and the Iraqi leader," he said. "Don't forget that Iraq is an Arab country and he stuck up for Palestinian rights."

Mr. Abbas portrayed last weekend's attack on Baghdad, in retaliation for an alleged plot to kill former President Bush, as violating primeval rules of fair combat.

"Up to now, there is no evidence [of a plot] to be sure," he said. "Even if it's true, I think there were many other recourses. Cruise missiles are a last resource. If they describe us as terrorists, what can we call this act? If you have a gun and your enemy has nothing, you can throw a stone, you can kick him with your leg, but why should you shoot him? This is just terrorism, I think.

"In the beginning, we had great hope in the Clinton administration," he said. "He was very young and open-minded. After 12 years of Republicans, we felt some change would happen, as he promised. Up to now, there has been no change, especially with our cause.

"But we think there is still some space for hope, and so we will wait."

But Mr. Abbas clearly does not believe his group will lie low forever.

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