Iraqis seize chance offered by hijack

 

Iraq's success in achieving a peaceful outcome to the Saudi Arabian Airlines hijack yesterday capped what has been a golden month for President Saddam Hussein.

Two Saudi hijackers diverted the Jeddah-London flight to Iraq but surrendered after talks with Iraqi officials.

As the 90 passengers and up to 17 crew members left Baghdad for an overnight stay in Saudi Arabia before resuming their flight to London, the Iraqi regime viewed the hijack as one of the many blessings it has received in the last four weeks.

In the last month there has been a flurry of flights to Baghdad in defiance of US and British sanctions and, in another shift of fortune, the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation has helped to improve President Saddam's standing in the Arab world.

The success in ending the hijack provided Iraq's president with a propaganda coup that he has exploited to the full.

"We are taking all measures that would reflect the real image of Iraq and its greatness, and [avoid] any action - God forbid that may hurt any of the passengers," a senior Iraqi official said before the hijackers surrendered.

Early editions of the Sunday papers in Britain expressed fears that President Saddam might keep the freed British, Saudi and US passengers as hostages of his own. The British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, echoed this fear when he said: "I hope now that the hostages will all be allowed to leave Iraq."

President Saddam had held western workers hostage as a protective shield after the invasion of Kuwait. The temptation this time was that he might use the 40 Britons, 15 Saudis and one American on the Saudi plane as a bargaining counter for the dropping of sanctions.

The fear proved groundless. The passengers were transferred to the Rashid, the best hotel in Baghdad, where Iraq's communications and transport minister, Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil, visited them and said: "We will do our best to serve you and to enable you to make telephone calls to your families."

President Saddam has played the propaganda game so skilfully that Mr Cook was left looking churlish yesterday when he could not bring himself to offer thanks to Iraq for the safe return of the passengers. The best the foreign secretary could manage was to tell reporters: "I would not thank any government for carrying out its clear international obligations."

A Saudi prince, one of the freed hostages, was less grudging. Prince Bandar bin Mohammed bin Saad bin Abdul-Rahman (19), who was on his way to London to study English, thanked Iraq for the way it handled the crisis.