KUWAIT CITY – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) apologized to Kuwaitis on Sunday for Palestinian support of Saddam Hussein (search) during the 1990-91 Gulf War, his latest gesture to mend fences with Arab nations offended by the late Yasser Arafat (search) over the years.
Kuwaitis had mixed feelings ahead of Abbas' visit, with many holding a grudge against the Palestinians for supporting Saddam during the war. On his arrival Sunday, Abbas provided a long-awaited apology in response to a question.
"Yes, we apologize for what we have done," he said.
Kuwait's prime minister, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, had said an apology was not needed and the matter of the Palestinian leadership's support for Saddam "has been closed."
Mohammed al-Saqr, who heads Parliament's foreign affairs panel, praised the apology, saying a "new page in relations was now being opened."
However, a group of lawmakers said in a statement Saturday they rejected the visit before the Palestine Liberation Organization "offers an official apology to the Kuwaiti people for the sin it committed against Kuwait."
One of the lawmakers, Mussalam al-Barrak, said Sunday the apology was too brief and "simple."
"We want an official apology in an official statement," he said.
Another lawmaker, Ahmed al-Saadoun, said, "Kuwaitis don't want to see the Palestinian leadership in Kuwait" even after an apology.
As PLO leader, Arafat supported Iraq in its 1990 invasion of this oil-rich country and opposed the subsequent U.S.-led war that liberated it. He never visited Kuwait afterward.
In Iraq, Mithal al-Alusi, leader of the Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation, welcomed Abbas' overture to Kuwait but argued that Iraqis deserved an apology of their own.
"This is an incomplete apology because it failed to mention the Iraqi side," he said in a statement.
He argued that Palestinian support for Saddam and his "whims" had contributed to the suffering of Iraqi people.
Abbas made a low-key visit to Kuwait in May to attend a conference on the Middle East. His visit did not attract much attention. However, when the late Faisal al-Husseini, then-PLO chief of Jerusalem, came here in May 2001 for a conference, lawmakers slammed the visit as premature.
Last year, Abbas — then the prime minister — condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in an interview with the state-owned Kuwait News Agency and called the Palestinian leadership's position "incorrect." However, he stopped short of apologizing.
Some 450,000 Palestinians lived in Kuwait before the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Most were expelled or pressured to leave after the country was liberated, and scores of Palestinians were convicted after the war of collaborating with Iraqi occupiers.
Still, Kuwait continued to provide financial aid to the Palestinian people through the Arab League and international organizations.
Abbas' visit to Kuwait is the first leg of a tour of the rich Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
"We tell our brothers in the Gulf we are always in dire need of their support and assistance," he said at the airport.
He did not elaborate on what he was asking for.
Before coming to Kuwait, Abbas visited Egypt, Syria and Lebanon amid signs of movement in the Mideast peace process after Arafat's Nov. 11 death at age 75.
His efforts to heal old wounds began in Syria, where relations with the Palestinian leadership had been sour for years, mainly because of Arafat's signing of unilateral agreements with Israel.
Abbas — a leading candidate to replace Arafat in the Jan. 9 Palestinian elections — promised Syrian President Bashar Assad the Palestinians would coordinate in future peace efforts. Though a welcome shift from the Palestinians' go-it-alone approach, Abbas' pledge fell short of what Damascus wanted — linkage of the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli peace tracks.
In the first visit to Lebanon by a Palestinian leader since Arafat and his PLO guerillas were driven out more than 20 years ago, Abbas spoke of a "positive page" in ties with the country, which views Palestinians with suspicion.
Many blame Palestinian fighters for contributing to the 1975-1990 sectarian civil war and accuse them of running a "state within a state" for more than a decade before being forced out of the country.
In Kuwait, Mohammed al-Jassem, editor-in-chief of the Al-Watan daily newspaper, said Abbas apologized to Kuwaitis because he "needs political and financial support," and it would be difficult for the Kuwaiti government to offer more substantial assistance without an apology.
"My fear and the fear of many Kuwaitis is that Palestinians would return to settle in Kuwait," al-Jassem said. "Palestinians bring with them their political illnesses and they come to stay."