A peacemaker was murdered, but the death merchants were safe
DOCUMENTS released this week show that Britain was selling £70 million worth of military equipment to Iraq in 1976, and the trade was growing. James Callaghan's Labour government was in office at the time. A Foreign Office analyst advised it that the Ba'ath party would remain in power in Baghdad, and that the best man in the regime was one Saddam Hussein.
This picture of the British government cultivating a valued arms customer, if not ally, comes on the thirtieth anniversary of the murder in London of Palestinian envoy Said Hamammi. Hammami, a frontrunner for the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was gunned down in his Green Street, Mayfair, office on January 4, 1978. The killing of the PLO's man in London was claimed by Abu Nidal's renegade Fatah Revolutionary Council which was sheltered and used by the Iraqi regime. In this it could have been linked to an ongoing war between the PLO and the Iraqi state's agents that was fought out in Europe.
Documents released by the National Archive show that, in 1976 and 1977, a variety of equipment was sold to Iraq, including 20 Cymbeline mortar-locating radar - at a cost of £11m - combat support boats, and £7.4m of weapons effects simulators. Iraq also paid Britain £500,000 to train Iraqi pilots, and some Iraqi officers were trained at Sandhurst.
British officials harboured no illusions about the Ba'athist regime.
A letter dated 14 February 1977 from Archie Lamb, the British ambassador in neighbouring Kuwait, notes that "the Kuwaitis regard the present regime in Baghdad as nasty and brutish".
"Not an opinion from which I imagine many of us would dissent," the letter adds.
In reply, an I McCluney, of the government's Middle East department, writes: "The most likely development in Baghdad is a continuance of Baath socialist government even, I submit, without Saddam Hussein - who is in any case, I believe, one of its more respectable figures."
The Iraqi regime was at this time officially headed by General Ahmad Hassan al Bakr. Saddam Hussein did not officially take over till 1979.
The British government had to weigh constraints designed to assuage concerns in Israel, Kuwait and Iran against the profits to be made by cementing improved relations with Iraq with lucrative arms deals.
A month after a memorandum of understanding was signed specifying what could not be sold to the Iraqis, the Foreign and Defence Secretaries
sent a memo to other ministers, in April 1976, saying: "The confidence engendered by a more comprehensive supply of defence equipment is likely to have a favourable effect upon general commercial relations between the two countries."
The memo cited access to major contracts, and Iraqi oil wealth.
It added: "In light of the above considerations, it is recommended that we should tell the Iraqis that we would be prepared to supply the optical version of Rapier [surface-to-air missile], the Scorpion family of armoured vehicles and the 105mm Light Gun."
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The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), struggling for national self-determination, felt threatened on all sides in the late 1970s. While Israel and its allies waged open war against it, Arab governments alternately repressed it or tried to use their patronage of factions to bring it under their control. Even as they paid lip-service to the PLO's status as "sole representative of the Palestinian people", and their "inalienable rights", Arab kings and dictators did not relish the idea of a "secular democratic state" in Palestine or anywhere.
Driven from Jordan after 'Black September', the Palestinians established their base in the refugee camps of Lebanon, only to find that when they came under attack there, not only from Israel but from the Christian Falangists, their supposed Syrian allies lined up with the latter, as seen in the 1976 siege of Tel al Zataar. Then Egyptian President Sadat made his dramatic November 1977 trip to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel.
While more militant Arab regimes proclaimed their support for the Palestinians and denounced Sadat as a traitor, Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership were bound to wonder what such "support" was worth, and whether between the "moderates" and "refusalists" they would be left with any room to manouevre. Iraq decided it would not support the Refusal Front anyway.
Seeing the possibility after the 1973 war of Arab states negotiating partial Israeli withdrawal from conquered lands, the PLO leadership, not wishing to see Israeli occupiers merely replaced by for example, Jordanian rule again, had begun moving towards the formula of establishing its own state "in any part of the homeland from which the Zionists are forced to withdraw".
Said Hammami had no illusions about the belligerence of the Israeli state, particularly of a government headed by Menachem Begin. Born in Jaffa in 1941, he had to flee with his parents and thousands of other Palestinian families when the old port city was stormed by forces mainly from Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi in April 1948, clearing out Palestinians so it could be taken into the Jewish state.
(It seems the "ethnic cleansing" has resumed this week, with evictions in Jaffa organised by property companies and the state).
It was as a student in Damascus that Hammami became active in politics. After working briefly as a teacher he left the Ba'ath party to join Fatah, and having distinguished himself as a fighter in the Golan and commanded a unit in the historic battle of Karameh, as well as showing qualities as a speaker and political leader, he was elected to the Palestinian National Council at the age of 30.
Yasser Arafat appointed Said Hammami to be the PLO's first diplomatic delegate in London. Having read English Literature at university, Hammami also showed a grasp of British politics, widening the PLO's range of contacts among politicians and journalists, and with the labour movement which had traditionally been pro-Zionist.
He had also been one of the first Palestinians to open channels to "the other Israel", through contact with the Marxist 'Matzpen' group, the journalist Maxim Ghilan and the maverick figure Uri Avnery who is today the doyen and grand old man of the Israeli peace camp.
With the same boldness that he had shown as a fighter, Said Hammami wrote in the "Times" in 1973 outlining his perspective for a Palestinian state to be set up alongside Israel, not as the once and for all time "solution" but as a way out of the impasse and eventually leading to conditions for a peaceful merger into one state.
It was not Said Hammami's vision alone. But in setting it out, and winning an audience, he made himself a target not only for Arab "rejectionists" who feared any talk of a peace, but for Israeli warmongers too, and their backers in the West, who had no wish to recognise the PLO's place in any real peace process, nor to see it with such a capable spokesperson.
It was the Abu Nidal group who were held responsible for the murder of Said Hammami, just as they tried to kill Israel's London ambassador Shlomo Argov in 1982,giving Israel its pretext for the Lebanon invasion that year aimed at destroying not Nidal's breakaway but the PLO and its people.
Undaunted, within days of the murder of Said Hammami, Yasser Arafat was receiving a delegation of US congressmen in Damascus, and telling them of his support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The clandestine talks also went on. Then on May 4, 1978, less than six months after the muder of Said Hammami in London, gunmen killed Egyptian Jewish communist Henri Curiel at his home in Paris, where he had been under surveillance by the French security services as well as a hail of calumny from the CIA's journalists. Curiel had been meeting another Palestinian fighter turned dove, Issam Sartawi, that morning. His killing may have been organised by the South African intelligence services, because of his assistance to anti-Apartheid militants. But well-informed Israelis told me they believed Mossad at least pointed the assassins at Curiel.
Was there a division of labour then, between Abu Nidal's hitmen and the Israelis?
Issam Sartawi had a simpler explanation, telling a London meeting in 1983 that Mossad had penetrated Abu Nidal's group and was using it a cover. Sartawi himself was assassinated in Lisbon that year after Zionist lobbying had failed to stop his invitation to the Socialist International. I will have more to say on that nearer the anniversary.
As for Abu Nidal (Sabri el-Banna) himself, while ordering the killing of others he seems to have led a charmed life, most of it sheltered by Baghdad, but also making visits to London, both for medical treatment and to visit his bank, the Sloan Square branch of the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). According to a documentary about the collapsed BCCI, he was able to purchase arms here, and had a police escort to the airport. Perhaps the business done with Saddam Hussein extended to looking after his proteges?