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Middle East: The Long Shadow of Tehran

5 minute read
William E. Smith

“It was a gun battle in the sky. It was unbelievable.” So said Jordanian Businessman Salim Dado after surviving a terrifying ordeal aboard an Iraqi jetliner on Christmas Day. According to officials in Saudi Arabia, where the plane subsequently crashed, 62 of the 107 passengers and crew members on the stricken craft were not so lucky: they died in the crash, and about 20 others were injured, in one of the worst hijacking disasters on record.

Routine had suddenly turned to terror after the jetliner, a Boeing 737, had been aloft for almost an hour on its 90-minute flight from Baghdad to the Jordanian capital of Amman. Passengers were just finishing a chicken lunch when a man suddenly ran through the cabin toward the cockpit, wildly shouting “Hey, hey, hey, hey!” A plainclothes security officer yelled, “Stop that!,” but the battle between as many as four hijackers and half a dozen Iraqi security men had already begun. According to Passenger Dado, the first terrorist then lobbed a grenade into the rear cabin and another into the cockpit, wounding the pilot and co-pilot. Despite the damage to the aircraft, the injured pilot managed to keep it on course for 17 minutes, until he reached a remote desert airfield in northern Saudi Arabia, but he was unable to prevent it from breaking apart in a fiery crash landing. Among the survivors was former Jordanian Interior Minister Suleiman Aarar.

Like several other events that shook the Middle East last week, the hijacking was almost certainly related to the 6 1/2-year-old war between Iraq and Iran. In Tehran, the government of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini denied involvement and said it condemned “any moves that may threaten the lives of innocent passengers.” But in Lebanon, several terrorist groups, including the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the hijacking. One survivor of the crash reported that the terrorists spoke with southern Lebanese accents, implying that they were indeed Shi’ite fundamentalists loyal to Khomeini.

The hijacking came only hours after a burst of renewed fighting in the gulf war. Early last week the Iraqis staged heavy air raids on Iranian industrial centers and troop concentrations in the hope of heading off Tehran’s long- awaited “final offensive,” for which the Iranians have amassed an estimated 650,000 troops along the 730-mile front. According to Iraq, Iranian forces launched a Christmas Eve assault aimed at capturing the southern Iraqi city of Basra but were repulsed by Iraqi troops after suffering huge losses. The Iranians, on the other hand, claimed they had merely been trying to capture four Iraqi islands in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and had inflicted heavy casualties.

In fact, the latest attack appeared to be neither a serious defeat for the Iranians nor the first round in Tehran’s long-threatened offensive, which is expected to begin sometime before March. Rather it seemed to have been an Iranian effort to test Iraqi defenses along the southern front. Nonetheless, the recent Iraqi aerial bombardment may be causing morale problems within Iran. The Khomeini government cannot afford a serious setback on the battlefield, but neither can it afford a widespread civilian reaction against the stalemated war.

In the meantime, the impact of the region’s fierce factionalism was once again being felt in unstable Lebanon. On Christmas Day a Libyan diplomat based in neighboring Syria, Mosbah Mohammed Gharibi, was killed in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley when gunmen raked his car with machine-gun fire. The Bekaa is a ! stronghold of Lebanese Shi’ites who still blame Libyan Leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for the 1978 disappearance and possible murder of their spiritual leader, Imam Moussa Sadr. The assumption in Beirut was that the diplomat’s killing was the latest in a series of retaliatory strikes by the Lebanese Shi’ites at their Libyan enemies.

Against this landscape of unremitting horror, one bright spot marked the holiday season. As darkness fell on another grim Christmas Eve in West Beirut, a black Mercedes cruised through the seaside district of Ramlet al Baida and halted 200 yards from the Beau Rivage Hotel. Out stepped French TV Journalist Aurel Cornea, 54, who had been kidnaped 9 1/2 months earlier — along with three colleagues — by Shi’ite terrorists of the pro-Iranian Revolutionary Justice Organization. As his captors sped off, the dazed sound technician stumbled to the hotel, where French diplomats were waiting.

The next day Cornea was flown home to Paris aboard a French air force jet. There he was greeted by his wife, by two colleagues who had been freed by their Lebanese kidnapers last June and, finally, by Premier Jacques Chirac. “I cannot believe I am in Paris. I still think it is a dream,” Cornea said as he spoke tearfully of his homecoming and of his friend and colleague Jean-Louis Normandin, 34, who remains captive in Lebanon.

Like the earlier release of three American hostages by another Lebanese group, the freeing of Cornea was an acknowledgment by pro-Iranian terrorists of the political benefits of kidnaping. Cornea’s captors noted that France had begun to take “serious steps” toward meeting their demands. In June, for example, the French compelled an Iranian opposition leader, Massoud Rajavi, and 300 of his mujahedin followers to leave France for Baghdad. In November France agreed to make an initial payment on a $1 billion loan extended in 1975 by the late Shah to the French nuclear power program.

So the pro-Iranian Shi’ites had ample reason for making a Yuletide gesture to Paris. And for future negotiations, they still have four French hostages, as well as four Americans, whom they can use as bargaining chips. “Once again, therefore,” noted the influential French daily Le Monde, “it is time to be joyful and indignant at the same time.”

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