Was it Libya? Or did Iran take revenge for the 'Vincennes'?

Comment: Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online

Did I see the start of the Lockerbie tragedy five months earlier, standing in a charnel house in southern Iran, looking at almost the same number of victims of another plane blasted out of the sky?

Did I see the start of the Lockerbie tragedy five months earlier, standing in a charnel house in southern Iran, looking at almost the same number of victims of another plane blasted out of the sky?

There were 290 people on board and most of them were laid out - or bits of them were laid out - in a meat cold-storage factory in Bandar Abbas. The cruiser USS Vincennes had shot Iran Air flight 655 out of the sky on 3 July, 1988, and even before I entered this dreadful warehouse, I wondered what revenge was in store for the Americans.

There were sheets containing flesh that would never be redeemed but some of the bodies had been pulled from the Gulf in remarkable condition, only an arm or a leg missing. Another US warship had reported seeing "things" falling out of the sky. A little girl whose family name was Behbahani had been travelling to a wedding in Kuwait and was already wearing her bridesmaid's dress. Now she and her dress were lying in a cheap wooden coffin.

The Iranians beside me, including relatives of the dead, were silent in grief and anger. That day, President Ronald Reagan said America had apologised "enough" for the error of the Vincennes commander, Captain Will Rogers the Third, who said he thought he was being attacked by an Iranian F-14 fighter.

Later, Reagan awarded Rogers America's highest naval decoration. That day, I was lunching with Iranian friends. One of them talked about this and started to bend a fork in his fingers in fury.

Within hours, Tehran Radio said: "We will not leave the crimes of America unanswered. We will resist the plots of the Great Satan and avenge the blood of our martyrs from criminal mercenaries."

I didn't have much doubt what that would mean. Back in my home base of Beirut, no one believed the Vincennes had shot down the Iranian Airbus passenger jet in error. I started hearing odd, disturbing remarks. Someone speculated that a plane could be blown up by a bomb in checked baggage. It was a few days before I realised that if people were talking like this, someone was trying to find out if it was possible.

The Iranians had a motive. But would someone so wickedly plot revenge? Five months later, I was in Paris when the BBC said a Pan Am jet had crashed over Lockerbie. This time, it was 270 dead. I didn't need to imagine the corpses. I had seen them in July; and not for a moment did I doubt the reason. There were many theories, among them, Iranian revenge for the Airbus killings.

In America, that was the favourite theory. In Beirut, an old acquaintance with terrifying contacts in the hostage world, blandly told me: "It's Jibril and the Iranians." Ahmed Jibril was head of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

This was not today's Iran, just as today's Libya is not the same (or is supposed to be not same) as Libya of 1988. Ayatollah Khomeini was still alive. Rafsanjani was his right-hand man, he who was later to be accused of decreeing the death of Iranian intellectuals.

Diplomatic correspondents in London and Washington started fingering the Iranians, the PFLP-GC, the Syrians. In Tehran, people would look at me with some intensity when I mentioned Lockerbie. They never claimed it. But they never expressed their horror. After the Airbus slaughter, that would have been asking a bit much.

In Beirut, the PFLP-GC became, briefly, known as "the Lockerbie boys". I didn't count much on that. But at least two years later, a strange thing happened. Jibril held a press conference in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, initially to talk about the release of French and Belgian hostages on a boat seized in the Mediterranean. But that was not what was on his mind. "I'm not responsible for the Lockerbie bombing," he suddenly blurted out. "They are trying to get me with a kangaroo court." There was no court then, of course. And no one had officially accused Jibril of Lockerbie.

But scarcely nine months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the diplomatic reporters suddenly no longer believed in the Syrian-PFLP-Iran connection. Now it was Libya which was behind Lockerbie. Iran was the enemy of the bestial Saddam and Syria was sending its tanks to serve alongside the western armies in the Gulf. Jibril's lads faded from the screen. So did the only country with a conceivable motive: Iran.

Rumours, gossip, stray remarks. But I can't forget reading the letter of a grief-stricken Iranian, Hossein Rezaian, who wrote to Captain Rogers, an angry, bitter letter about the Airbus victims which deeply moved the captain of the Vincennes, although he never replied to it.

"Among the crew members of the jet-liner," the letter said, "I lost my dear brother, a unique pilot, an extraordinarily dignified and innocent man, (the) late Captain Mohsen Rezaian who was the head-pilot of the ill-fated Airbus. He was turned into the (sic) powder at the (sic) mid-air by your barrage missile attack and perished along with so many other innocent lives aboard, without the slightest sin or guilt whatsoever."

The parallel of grief with the families of the Lockerbie victims is truly painful. So is the possibility that in some other Middle Eastern countries last night, there was a sigh of relief that Libya got blamed for Lockerbie.