The capture by American forces in Baghdad of Muhammad Abbas, also known as Abu Abbas, 54, head of the Palestine Liberation Front, is welcome news indeed. The PLF, under Abbas' leadership, was responsible for the hijacking in 1985 of the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and the horrendous death of crippled American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69.
But rather than try Abbas here, he should be turned over to the Italians and begin serving his long-standing prison sentence.
The killing by Palestinian terrorists of Mr. Klinghoffer, who was shot and then pushed overboard from his wheelchair into the Mediterranean Sea, apparently because he was Jewish, was one of the unforgettable incidents that have marked the long bloodbath in the Middle East associated with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, into which the United States and sometimes individual Americans have found themselves drawn. Another recent American casualty of that conflict was Rachel Corrie, a student who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer March 16 as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian residence in Gaza.
Abbas was tried for his crimes by an Italian court in 1986 and sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. He has since bounced around the Middle East, from a residence in Gaza to Baghdad in 2000 without ever having served any prison time.
A separate American warrant for Abbas' arrest was dropped years ago. A 1996 amnesty for Abbas, part of the Oslo accords, was affirmed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999. The PLF had maintained an office in Baghdad, under the protection of Saddam Hussein's regime. No link has been established between the PLF and al-Qaeda.
Abbas, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, in fact condemned the Sept. 11 attacks when they occurred. His statement at the time sought to make a clear distinction between the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and al-Qaeda terrorism against the United States.
Although the murder of Mr. Klinghoffer by Abbas' organization remains one of the most heartless acts of terrorism in modern times, the correct move for the United States is to respond positively to an Italian government request for his extradition to Italy to serve his sentence, rather than bring him to the United States and seek to try him in American courts.
It could be useful in the meantime, prior to his extradition, to interrogate him thoroughly to see if he has any useful information on other terrorist organizations or their plans.