updated 12/12/2004 9:22:04 AM ET 2004-12-12T14:22:04

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas apologized to Kuwaitis on Sunday for the Palestinians’ support of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, making a gesture many here have long demanded as he launched a tour to repair relations with Arab nations.

Asked by reporters about Palestinian support for Saddam’s invasion, Abbas responded: “Yes, we apologize for what we have done.”

The Kuwaiti government, in a reconciliation gesture to the new Palestinian leadership, had said Abbas was welcome and apologies were not important. Abbas is widely expected to be elected in January to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died in November and had stormy relations with many Arab leaders at one time or another.

However, Abbas’ visit remained controversial in Kuwait.

A group of lawmakers said in a statement Saturday that they “absolutely reject the visit ... before the PLO offers an official apology to the Kuwaiti people for the sin it committed against Kuwait.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Abbas’ brief remarks at the airport would satisfy the lawmakers.

Kuwaiti PM: Matter 'has been closed'
As PLO leader, Arafat supported Iraq in its 1990 invasion of this oil-rich country and opposed the subsequent U.S.-led Gulf War that liberated it. He never visited Kuwait afterward.

Some 450,000 Palestinians lived in Kuwait before the invasion. Most were expelled or pressured to leave after the country was liberated. Scores of Palestinians were convicted after the war for collaborating with Iraqi occupiers.

Kuwait, however, continued to provide financial aid to the Palestinian people through the Arab League and international organizations. Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah also said Saturday that the matter of the Palestinian leadership’s support for Saddam “has been closed.”

Asked then if Kuwait was going to demand an apology, Sheik Sabah said, “Why are we talking about apologies?”

While serving as prime minister last year, Abbas condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in an interview with the state-owned Kuwait News Agency. He said the Palestinian leadership’s position was “incorrect” and he understood why Kuwaitis were “angry and reproachful.” He stopped short of apologizing.

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