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SECRET ISRAELI-IRAQI TALKS
NO ONE ASKS THE PALESTINIANS!
"We know that this is being talked about.
No agreement has been finalised but we
are pretty confident it is going to happen."
U.S. Dept of State
THE OBSERVER - by Jason Burke, Paul Beaver and Ed Vulliamy, New York
Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, has made an astonishing bid for peace with the West after months of secret talks with the Israeli government.
At a series of meetings held over the past 15 months, Saddam's representatives have repeatedly told the Israelis that, if Jerusalem works to end Iraq's diplomatic isolation, Baghdad will arrange for more than 300,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon to be airlifted to new lives in Iraq and will tone down its hostile rhetoric towards the Jewish state.
Lebanon's Palestinian population poses the most significant security threat following the Israelis' planned withdrawal from the south of the country later this summer, and moving them to Iraq would solve a significant problem for Jerusalem. It would also mark one of the most significant shifts in regional politics in decades.
The secret discussions will embarrass the Foreign Office which supports the Americans' hardline policy aimed at isolating Iraq.
Official sources in Washington, London, Amman and Jerusalem last week confirmed the contacts between the two nations and the Iraqi proposal. Senior US State Department sources told The Observer: "We know that this is being talked about. No agreement has been finalised but we are pretty confident it is going to happen."
An airlift moving the refugees - which would cost more than $100 million (£60m) - would be funded by Israel and its supporters overseas, the State Department source said.
On at least three occasions over the past 20 years Iraq and Israel have held talks - always when Saddam's regime has been under pressure. Israel is keen to neutralise any possible threats from other countries. However, it could merely be humouring Saddam to gain leverage elsewhere in the region.
"Saddam is the consummate pragmatist. He will talk to anyone if he thinks it will help him... He will offer whatever he thinks they want most," said one former aide of the Iraqi dictator last week.
The Observer has established that representatives of the two countries have met at least four times. The first meeting was at the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan in Amman in February last year when a senior Israeli politician had two conversations with Taha Mohieddin Maarouf, the Iraqi Vice-President. "It was just protocol though, nothing substantive," said one Iraqi opposition source in London. The meeting in Amman was confirmed by a Jordanian official.
Later in the spring a second meeting occurred in Athens between an American businessman with strong Israeli connections and a diplomat from a Middle Eastern country supportive of Iraq. A number of issues were discussed including the lifting of specified sanctions and the translocation of the Palestinians. Late last year Nizar Hamdoun, the Iraqi deputy Foreign Minister and former ambassador to the United Nations, travelled to America to further contacts with Jewish groups and representatives of the Israeli government in New York and Washington.
At a series of meetings the question of the movement of the Palestinians to Iraq was raised though no commitments were made. Hamdoun is known as a smooth diplomat with a good reputation internationally. "He has kept himself distanced from the ugliness of the rest of the regime," said one Iraq expert.
The most recent meeting known to The Observer occurred last February in Amman though it is unclear who attended. Intelligence sources in Jerusalem confirmed last week that discussions between representatives of Israel and Iraq are continuing. Saddam's favoured son Qusay - recently appointed head of the regime's security operation - is thought to be in overall charge of the talks.
The idea of moving the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to Iraq has been raised before though this is the first time Baghdad has ever talked practically about how to execute the plan.
The current sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the United Nations -
and maintained through strong pressure from London and Washington - has
shattered Iraq's economy but done nothing to weaken Saddam's grip. The
Iraqi dictator is increasingly constrained by the current situation.
The contacts will cause serious concern in Whitehall. Britain has doggedly
followed the Americans' hardline despite increasing criticism. The diplomacy
pursued by Israel will be a significant embarrassment for the
Americans and the British who have repeatedly called for a united front.
Experts say there are many reasons for the contacts between Baghdad
and Jerusalem. "Both governments have significant amounts to gain," said
Said Aburish, a biographer of both Saddam and Yasser Arafat and a former
adviser to the Iraqi regime.
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