JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Palestinians living in Lebanon have been sent to Iraq to carry out suicide attacks against American and British soldiers.
Col. Munir Maqdah, one of the top commanders of the Fatah movement in Lebanon, said his men were already in Baghdad, prepared to launch suicide attacks. Another group of Fatah suicide bombers are due in Iraq shortly, he added.
Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO, has several thousand militiamen in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. Most of the Fatah gunmen continue to receive their salaries from the PLO.
Maqdah, a former senior officer in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17, is based in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Although he belongs to Fatah, Maqdah has openly challenged Arafat by criticizing him for signing the Oslo accords with Israel.
This is the first time that a senior Fatah official has announced that his men have decided to join the fighting in Iraq. Palestinian sources said the Fatah volunteers entered Iraq through Syria.
Maqdah told the Nazareth-based A-Sennarah weekly that Fatah has decided to "strike at American interests all over the world."
"Resisting the American aggression on Iraq supports the Palestinian people and the intifada," he added. "What is happening in Iraq is the battle of the Palestinian people first and the Arab and Muslim nation second."
Palestinians say some of the numerous attacks that Fatah has carried out in Israel over the past 30 months were ordered on the personal instructions of Maqdah.
Fatah is the first Palestinian group to recruit women for suicide missions. Three women from Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nablus blew themselves up in Israel, killing a number of civilians.
However, most of the suicide attacks, which claimed the lives of hundreds of people, were perpetrated by Hamas and its sister organization, Islamic Jihad.
Last week, Israeli security forces announced the capture of a Fatah-affiliated teenager sent on a suicide mission meant to kill hundreds of people. Officials said the target was a home for 180 orphans and homeless children in Jerusalem. They said the 17-year-old Palestinian from the Bethlehem area was sent with a suitcase filled with explosives to blow up the school.
Leaders of rival factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad have repeatedly urged Iraqis to endorse such suicide attacks as an effective weapon against the Americans and British troops.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Palestinians chanting, "Oh beloved Saddam, bomb Tel Aviv" and "Death to America," rallied in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Friday in their biggest show of support ever for Iraq, burning effigies of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The largest march was organized by Hamas in Gaza City, where about 30,000 people poured into the streets after Friday noon prayers in more than a dozen mosques.
Several trucks with loudspeakers led the demonstrators. One man shouted into a bullhorn that the Iraqis should imitate Hamas and send suicide bombers to attack American and British soldiers.
"We advise our brothers in Iraq to make use of the Palestinian experience and to concentrate on martyrdom operations which will uproot the invaders and plant terror in the heads of the infidels," the man told the crowd.
The group's founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, said the United States policy in Iraq aimed to serve the Zionists.
"We appeal to the people of Iraq to be patient and continue their jihad, and to use all possible means to achieve victory against the British and American enemies," he added.
Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior Hamas official, told the crowd: "First of all, this is unjust war. It aims at killing our people in Iraq. It aims to take our oil. It aims at securing Israel in the region."
In Nablus, about 4,000 supporters of various Palestinian factions took to the streets. The crowd cheered and clapped as effigies of Bush, Blair and Sharon were hung from a traffic circle and burned.
"Bush, you will pay with blood for oil," the crowd chanted.
Marches in support of Iraq were also held in the West Bank towns of Kalkilya, Tulkarm, Halhoul, and Yabad, with a total of about 16,000 demonstrators.
Khaled Shaheen, 35, carried a poster of Saddam Hussein through the streets of Halhoul, saying he pinned his hopes on the Iraqi president to push Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We are placing all our hopes in [Saddam] to liberate us, and we hope he will win this war against Bush and Blair," Shaheen said.