Rising and falling with Iraq

SUN JOURNAL

Palestinian: Devotion to the dream of an independent homeland entangles a refugee's fate with that of Saddam Hussein.

December 30, 2003|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Among the many thousands of Palestinian refugees who made Iraq their home, Ahmed Rahal was one of the most driven.

From an impoverished childhood in the West Bank, he rose to the pinnacle of Saddam Hussein's army, becoming the first Palestinian to hold the rank of general. Every step of the way, he had one dream: returning to an independent Palestine.

The dream sustained him, but it also blinded him.

He cast his lot with a ruthless dictator and did his bidding. He followed Hussein because he was the only leader who fostered the hope that a pan-Arab movement would create a Palestinian state and welcomed Palestinians to Iraq while they awaited his grand plan's fulfillment.

These days, Rahal, bitter and without remorse, sits alone in his darkened Baghdad house -- the generator turned on as little as possible to save money.

He sent his wife and five children to Jordan months ago but might never be able to join them because of his past. He avidly follows the attacks of anti-American insurgents on Al-Jazeera television and feels a kinship with them.

His reversal of fortune reflects one consequence of Hussein's ouster that has passed largely unnoticed outside the region.

For decades, many Palestinians who held fast to their hopes for an independent state relied on Iraq's support. But Hussein's pan-Arab campaign proved a dead end for their aspirations.

The arc of the 51-year-old Rahal's life traces the rise of the Palestinian cause in Iraq, its gradual distortion as Hussein embarked on grandiose nationalist adventures against Iran and Kuwait, and its collapse.

The story of Ahmed Rahal and his six brothers and sisters reflects the extremes of the Palestinian diaspora -- its enormous achievements and its degrading defeats.

His eldest brother, Khadar Hussein, became an oncologist, moved to the United States and has a successful practice in Oklahoma City. But the others in the family have wandered through the Arab world for much of their lives, looking for a home. Four are settled now in Jordan; a fifth lives in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Their 90-year-old father lives in Jordan, too, waiting for Ahmed, the youngest, to come home.

Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Jordan Valley, Ahmed lived in the shadow of Khadar, the family's academic star and, as a boy, its radical.

When Ahmed was 9, he looked on admiringly as Khadar joined the youth wing of the Baath Party and was arrested for posting an inflammatory proclamation against Jordan's King Hussein on a police station wall.

But Khadar Hussein dropped out of the party during college. Ahmed Rahal remained a member until the party was dissolved this year when the U.S. soldiers arrived in Iraq.

Rahal had fled Jordan, where the family would forever be refugees, and in 1969 went to the newly welcoming country of Iraq; a few years later, many family members followed.

For the first time, Rahal felt he belonged. He joined a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization and enrolled in Iraq's military academy.

Eager to use his new expertise, he left for southern Lebanon in early 1974. The civil war in that nation was a brutal fight between guerrilla factions of the PLO based in Lebanon and Christian Lebanese militias. It widened into a broader war.

Looking back, he thinks his stay in Lebanon was the happiest period of his life. Largely unburdened by commitments to family, he could give his all to his first love. "I was fighting for Palestine," he recalled with a wistful smile. "It was the best of times. We had a mission."

Those days ended abruptly in May 1982 when the PLO was expelled from Lebanon. Rahal never thought about going anywhere but Baghdad. "My family was in Iraq, my brothers, my parents," he said with a shrug. So was his wife, Buthaina, an Iraqi of Palestinian origin, who had been a Baath Party activist.

Rather than starting from scratch, in Iraq he knew he would have a job -- a salaried position in the Iraqi army -- a house in a solid middle-class neighborhood and, because he was a Palestinian, status.

On his return from Lebanon, he stopped in Baghdad barely long enough to embrace his wife and pack fresh clothes. In 72 hours, he was racing to the front of the Iran-Iraq war -- the hot, humid, marshy region near the border -- and then to the north, to battle the Kurds.

Rahal would return to a changed country. Hundreds of thousands of men had died in the war, and Baghdad, the city of sidewalk cafes and artist studios, was falling into disrepair.

Its decline matched his own sense of having come to the end of his run. Without a war to fight, it was harder to tell himself he was working for the Palestinian cause.

On Aug. 2, 1990, he awoke to news that Iraq had invaded Kuwait.

Hussein sent him to Kuwait to assess the status of Palestinians there, who because of the perception that they were sympathetic to Iraq were being targeted by Kuwaitis furious about the invasion.

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