Saddam Hussein is paying $25,000 to the relatives of Palestinian suicide bombers — a $15,000 raise much welcomed by the bombers' families.

In Tulkarm, one of the poorest towns on the West Bank, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council handed out the checks from Saddam. The payments have been made for at least two years, but the amount has suddenly jumped up by $15,000 — a bonus for the families of martyrs, to reward those taking part in the escalating war against Israel. 

Paul McGeough, reporting from the West Bank, was the only foreign correspondent in the hall Monday night when a Palestinian official handed out the checks. McGeough's story in today's Sydney Morning Herald describes a very hellish twist on the Academy Awards: 

The men at the top table then opened Saddam's checkbook and, as the names of 47 martyrs were called, family representatives went up to sign for checks written in U.S. dollars. 

Those of two suicide bombers were the first to be paid the new rate of $25,000 U.S. and those whose relatives had died in other clashes with the Israeli military were given $10,000 U.S. each. 

The $500,000 U.S. doled out in this impoverished community yesterday means that the besieged Iraqi leader now has contributed more than $10 million to grieving Palestinian families since the new intifada began 18 months ago. 

In another article published today in The Age, McGeough wrote, "The grieving mothers seemed comforted when the man from the Iraqi-funded Arab Liberation Front told them: 'Don't think that the martyrs are dead — they are alive and in the heavens and they are close to God.'" 

I reached McGeough on his mobile phone in the West Bank this morning and asked if he snuck into this gruesome town hall meeting, held by a PLO faction aligned with Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. I mean, who would let a foreign journalist see this sort of Iraqi-Palestinian blood partnership? 

"I asked the Ramallah office of the Arab Liberation Front," McGeough said. "They said I could go." 

He was welcomed. So the Palestinian Authority is blatantly exposing its terrorist funding from Iraq? To foreign reporters? 

"You can interpret it in various ways. One way is that it is a deliberate way for Baghdad to escalate the suicide bombings." 

McGeough quoted the Arab Liberation Front's Ma'amoon Tayeh as saying the extra $15,000 would encourage more suicide-bomber volunteers to "confirm the legitimacy of our national questions." Why? 

"Saddam Hussein considers Palestine to be a governate of Iraq and he thinks the same of the Palestinian martyrs as he does of Iraqi martyrs — they all are martyrs for the whole Arab nation," Tayeh was quoted as saying. 

This Arab realm is the same one Saddam has invaded and battled on various fronts for 30 years. Whatever — desperate and brainwashed Palestinian kids aren't known for their nuanced view of recent Middle East history. 

This should be a huge story. This should be on the front page of every serious newspaper. But you have to spend some time looking for any mentions of it. On March 12, the Associated Press quoted Baghdad's Al-Iraq newspaper's quoting of deputy minister Tariq Aziz, who said the payments have been made since 2000 and recently were increased. The BBC monitored a broadcast this week about the blood money deal. Other news organizations report nut-sandwich "solutions" by the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, who at least sounds more sincere the Saudis. But McGeough is the first to bring this twisted tale to the current war coverage. 

It was news even to the Palestinian officials McGeough questioned. 

"I interviewed the guy from the Arab Liberation Front last Thursday, the general secretary, and he told me everyone got $10,000. He knew nothing about the extra $15,000." 

Maybe he didn't know. But could the Iraq-PLO deal be missed by Arafat? 

"It's a bit hard for Arafat, given his grip on things, and in particular his ownership of his security forces .... For him to have not found out that someone's arrived with a half-million dollars to hand out in one of the most impoverished communities on the West Bank ...." 

What about Washington? Is it worth pursuing a peace deal when the Palestinians are being paid by Iraq to blow up their sons and daughters? When the Palestinians are applauded by the Arab nations for the bloodshed? Should we even bother with heartfelt discussions about U.N. inspectors and diplomacy when Iraq is a proud example of state-sponsored terrorism? What do we get from ignoring Mohammed Atta's meeting with Iraqi spies in Prague? Should we play nice with the psycho who parades his enemies' families on satellite teevee just to teach those exiles a lesson? 

After I got off the phone with McGeough, I pulled out my old copy of "Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf," a quickie paperback by Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie, published in 1990. I bought it because I was supposed to go to Saudi Arabia with the Marines from Camp Pendleton — as a reporter covering the Gulf War, not as a Marine — and I didn't know too much about Saddam except that he was a psychotic opportunist nut who could shake hands with Bob Dole on one day and slaughter the Christian Assyrians the next day. 

This little paperback is full of information that's very relevant right now: 

Saddam's campaign to enroll the past in the service of future glory is obsessive. He has embarked on a giant project to reconstruct a version of ancient Babylon .... Saddam is widely portrayed as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar, the 6th Century B.C. Babylonian ruler, whose memory the Old Testament has preserved as a conqueror of Jerusalem, the leader who carried the Hebrews into captivity. 

Saddam even had bricks stamped with his name alongside Nebuchadnezzar's. Babylon would come back. The Israelites would again be destroyed or enslaved. Remember, this is the same historical insanity that produced Osama bin Laden's longings for a re-conquest of Spain. Logic and diplomacy don't mean a damned thing to a Nebuchadnezzar wannabe. Saddam's answer to the "peace process" is a fat check to the suicide bombers' families and the destruction of the evil Hebrews. And the Palestinian authorities don't seem to have any problem doling out that dirty money ... in U.S. dollars.

Ken Layne types from a shack behind his Los Angeles home. The author of trashy thrillers such as Dot.Con and the upcoming Space Critters, he has written and edited for a variety of news outfits including Information Week, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, UPI and Mother Jones. Since the Enron-like collapse of his Web paper, Tabloid.net, in 1999, he has been posting commentary to KenLayne.com.

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