7 April 2002

"Arafat 'teams up with Saddam to plot attacks'
By Charles Laurence and Inigo Gilmore in Ramallah and Philip Sherwell in Nablus
(Filed: 07/04/2002)

COLIN POWELL, the US secretary of state, left Washington on his Middle East mission last night amid reports that Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat were planning to stage joint terrorist attacks in the region.

Senior officials of Saddam's General Intelligence Agency (GIA) are reported to have held talks with Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority to identify potential targets, according to Western intelligence experts.

They have been passed details of a meeting in Baghdad at the end of last month when an Arafat aide is said to have provided a list of strategic sites in Israel and Saudi Arabia that might be attacked in the event of American air strikes on Baghdad. The list of possible targets was presented to officials at the GIA, which is controlled by Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son.

Apart from agreeing to share intelligence, the Palestinians are said to have provided Iraqi security agents with 37 blank passports, obtained from a variety of Arab countries, that might be used by the Iraqis when mounting terrorist attacks.

The disclosure that Saddam and Mr Arafat are trying to organise a co-operation pact will complicate Mr Powell's attempts to arrange a ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians. Washington is keen to call a halt to hostilities so that it can concentrate on plans to tackle Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

As he left Washington last night Mr Powell said it would be at least a week before he attempted to set up a meeting with the Palestinian leader. Before flying to Tel Aviv Mr Powell will visit Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. He will then travel to Madrid on Wednesday for a meeting of European Union ministers. He was also planning to meet Russian officials.

The Telegraph can disclose that, in advance of Mr Powell's visit, CIA agents have held a series of meetings with Mr Arafat in the past week at his Ramallah headquarters. The talks have been aimed at establishing a lasting ceasefire. Mr Arafat has so far refused to accept the ceasefire terms, however, claiming that they were "skewed" in Israel's favour.

Yesterday there seemed no end in sight to the fighting, despite President Bush's protestation that "enough is enough" as he called on the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank territory they had reoccupied in the past week. Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships broke through Palestinian defences around the old city of Nablus and heavy casualties were reported in the besieged refugee camp at Jenin as bulldozers cleared pathways for tanks.

Nablus and Jenin, two hotbeds of Palestinian extremism, have become the focus of the anti-terrorist operation launched nine days ago by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister. Both sides reported a high death toll in Jenin, where one Palestinian gunman said that he had counted 30 bodies.

The commander of Israeli forces in the area, Eyal Shlein, said on Israel Radio: "We trapped them in there, attacked them with the intention that they should surrender. Those that don't surrender will be killed."

Four Palestinian militants were killed as they tried to plant bombs near a checkpoint at Nablus, while a man wearing a belt packed with explosives was shot dead in Jenin, according to the Israeli military. Two Israeli soldiers were also reported dead in Jenin.

The Palestinian Authority called for international intervention to stop what it called Israeli 'massacres' in the Jenin camp, a militant stronghold. Israeli officials dismissed the appeal as propaganda and denied targeting civilians.

Palestinian gunmen moving through the ancient streets of central Nablus handed out belts laden with explosives and threatened to blow up Israeli soldiers entering the quarter after a two-day siege. The stench of tear gas and the crackle of automatic rifle fire filled the cobbled alleys as fighters scurried for cover and residents hid under tables.

Israel appeared to be using the time before the arrival of Mr Powell to intensify its operations. Palestinian officials threatened to boycott the visit if the secretary of state did not meet Mr Arafat.

In another development, it was suggested that one of the purposes of Mr Powell's visit to Morocco was to discuss plans for Mr Arafat's exile. The US is said to have suggested that Mr Arafat should move to Morocco unless he can prove his ability to halt Palestinian violence and co-operate in progress towards peace talks.

Both the Moroccans and the Israelis are reported to have baulked, however, at Mr Arafat's demand for an entourage of 70 Palestinian officials to be guaranteed safe passage with him, including some who are on Israel's 'wanted' list as terrorists."