Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent his latest salvo in his war of words with the West. In a rare, televised address to his nation, the Iraqi leader called on oil-producing Arab nations to stop sending oil to the United States or to Israel.
With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalating, Saddam has seized on Israel's latest campaign against the Palestinians as a rallying point for all Arabs.
And his rally cry appears to be working. On a nearly daily basis, Iraqis are in the streets shouting a slew of anti-American and pro-Palestinian slogans, such as, "Down, down USA. ... Saddam, our beloved. ... Blow up Tel Aviv."
In his address, Saddam said, "Arabs should express their solidarity with their brothers' security and safety, and [with regard to] oil exports including Iraq, immediately decrease the production of their oil for exportation by 50 percent and directly deprive the U.S. and Zionist entity from the other exported half, and to threaten any country or company with the same measure if they export the oil they import from Arab countries."
Oil-producing Arab nations used oil as a political weapon in 1973, and their reduction of exports caused a global energy crisis. Since then, the world's wealthiest nations have created the International Energy Agency to blunt the impact of any similar curbs in production.
Saddam has emerged as the Palestinians' strongest Arab supporter. He promised $25,000 to each of the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and has since offered the same to anyone whose home was destroyed in Jenin.
He renamed a street after Yasser Arafat and when Israelis confined Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters, Saddam ordered the people of Baghdad to stop for a moment of silence.
Before his speech was even over tonight, pro-Palestinian demonstrators emerged on the streets again, chanting "Saddam, Saddam."
Saddam's plan seems clear enough. By portraying himself as a champion of the Palestinians, he gains popularity among ordinary Arabs. In doing so, he makes it more and more difficult for Arab leaders to ally themselves with the United States for an attack on Iraq.
Saddam tried this strategy before — 12 years ago. Before invading Kuwait, he championed the Palestinian cause to gain Arab support. After the invasion, he promised free oil to countries that defied U.N. sanctions and continued to do business with him.
But unlike 1990, this time he seems to be having some success. At the recent Arab summit, Iraq's representative was embraced by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Saddam's former enemy — and America's Gulf War ally.
And this weekend, a convoy of trucks with food for the Palestinians left Baghdad for the West Bank. The Israelis are sure to turn it back. But for Saddam's public relations machine, that could be another victory.