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Going to Palestine Via Iraq

Ahmed Rahal thought the Hussein regime was his people's best bet for their own state. Now he finds himself trapped in a new occupation.

December 22, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- 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 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.

Now that plan lies in ruins.

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 may 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 staunch 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 recent collapse.

The bitter irony for Rahal is that he staked everything on reversing the effects of one occupation, only to find himself trapped in another. In a recent conversation, Rahal, a lean man with carefully combed thinning hair, shrugged in an exaggerated gesture, as if to suggest that Iraq's take-over by coalition forces meant nothing to him. But his words belied that.

"You have broken the whole Iraq, and not just Iraq but Palestine too," he said as he sat in his living room, an electrical generator, a sign of his once favored status, rumbling in the background. "Now the West can dictate any resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict it wants, because the only one who had the cause of Palestinian independence at its heart was the Baath Party."

After years in pursuit of his national aspirations, Rahal is further than ever from his homeland.

"We are living a nightmare," he said. "There is no future for my children, there is no future for the Arabs. We will live as slaves."

Now, Rahal must pin his hopes for an independent state on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- but an agreement and safe passage for former fighters are probably a long way off.

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 rest of the family has wandered through the Arab world for much of their lives, looking for a home. Four are settled now in Jordan, and 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.

One sister, Mazuza, who lives in Jordan, captures the family's longing for the Palestine of memory and myth. The family's village has become its city on the hill, a golden place. "I have heard Artouf is paradise," she said, referring to the village her family was forced to flee and she has never seen.

Artouf today is a heavily industrialized area, the small stone houses and fenced grazing lands entirely gone. But that is not the Rahals' Artouf.

"I imagine it has orchards, plums, peaches and oranges and mountains," she said. "My father had sheep there and olive groves."

Unable to return, the Rahal family has been drawn in two directions -- the one taken by Khadar and the one taken by Ahmed. Khadar turned west to a world where education could trump politics. Ahmed turned east and took up arms, but could not shoot his way back home.


Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Jordan Valley, Ahmed lived in his eldest brother's shadow. Khadar was 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. "You know he is the reason I joined," Ahmed said, adding with a touch of pride, "He was putting the poster up when they caught him."

But Khadar Hussein dropped all involvement with the party during college. Ahmed Rahal remained a member for decades until the party was dissolved this year when the Americans arrived in Iraq.

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